Court orders pastor to remain in jail until May trial for violating COVID-19 restrictions

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A church pastor arrested last month and charged with violating COVID-19 rules on maximum gathering capacity will remain behind bars until the trial begins in early May, a Canadian judge has ruled.

The Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Peter Michalyshyn ruled Friday that Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church must remain in jail until his trial, scheduled to take place from May 3 to May 5, in Alberta Provincial Court in Stony Plain. 

Pastor Coates was detained at the Edmonton Remand Centre on Feb. 16. He has refused to agree to bail conditions that he does not attend or conduct services at GraceLife Church unless they comply with government guidelines requiring capacity limits and social distancing. 

Lawyers at the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents Coates and GraceLife Church, argue that the bail conditions and health orders “violate his Charter freedoms of conscience, religion, expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

However, the judge ruled there were no legal errors in last month’s decision to release Coates on the condition he complies with public health rules. 

“Beliefs and convictions, without more, do not overcome those valid and enforceable laws,” Michalyshyn was quoted as saying by The Edmonton Journal. He added that the pastor and his congregation hold to a “strong and literal interpretation of holy scriptures” that demands that they meet in person and keep faces uncovered. 

JCCF plans to file an appeal to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench to seek Coates’ release before his trial date. 

“A trial set eight weeks down the road was too long for an innocent Pastor to be in jail,” JCCF President John Carpay said in a statement. “Pastor Coates is a peaceful Christian minister. He should never have been required to violate his conscience and effectively stop pastoring his church as a condition to be released.”

Carpay contends that the arrest is “a violation of Pastor Coates’ Charter rights and freedoms.”

“Charter freedoms do not disappear because the government declares regular church services to be outlawed while allowing hundreds of people to fill their local Walmarts,” Carpay said. 

According to The Edmonton Journal, GraceLife Church has been holding in-person services in his absence.

The pastor’s lawyer, James Kitchen, told the newspaper that his client is a law-abiding man. But the latter prevails when the law and his client’s interpretation of Scripture conflict.

Coates stated in an affidavit that the health orders “directly contravene the authority of the local church, and the supreme authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

The pastor held services for three consecutive weeks after the church was ordered to close at the end of January for reportedly violating restrictions on maximum gathering capacity and not following physical distancing, CTV News Edmonton reported at the time.

Police initially arrested Coates after he held services for a second time but later released him after serving an undertaking with conditions.

Police and health officials attended a service and found that the pastor continued to defy his release conditions, and he was charged a second time. 

“Observations were made that the pastor was not complying with his undertaking release conditions, and the church was not in compliance with the public health order,” reads a statement released by Parkland County Police. 

The pastor turned himself in to the police on Feb. 16. He faces two counts of violating the Public Health Act and charged for failing to comply with his undertaking condition.

"We've been consistent in our approach of escalated levels of enforcement with this pastor, and we were hopeful to resolve this issue in a different manner," Inspector Mike Lokken said in a statement. "The Pastor's actions, and the subsequent effects those actions could have on the health and safety of citizens, dictated our response in this situation."

GraceLife Church explained in a statement on its website that when the pandemic first started, the church “shifted to livestream and abided by most of the new government guidelines for our gatherings.”

But after the first public health emergency ended, the church returned to normal gatherings last June. 

“We did so recognizing COVID-19 was much less severe than the government had initially projected,” the church statement reads. “This sentiment was reflected in the assessment of the premier of Alberta, who deliberately referred to COVID-19 as ‘influenza’ multiple times in a speech announcing the end of the first declared public health emergency.”

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