Alberta pastor released from prison for COVID violations, as church continues with full service

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Alberta pastor released from prison for COVID violations, as church continues with full service


Pastor James Coates case has become one of the most high-profile and controversial cases of religious freedom over COVID-19 health restrictions in Canada

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EDMONTON – The Edmonton-area pastor, released last week after spending a month behind bars for preaching in violation of COVID-19 regulations, appeared again during a crowded church service on Sunday.

Pastor James Coates’ case has become one of the most high-profile and controversial cases of religious freedom over COVID-19 health restrictions in the country. GraceLife, the Coates Church in Parkland County just outside of Edmonton, has consistently broken Alberta pandemic rules for months.

On Sunday, Rachel Notley, leader of the NDP opposition in the province, said the Church must be “closed.”

“Many other congregations across the province have made sacrifices and adapted their services to comply with public health orders,” Notley wrote on Twitter. “The people who attend this church are not above others. Their refusal to follow the rules puts others at risk. ”

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Coates was locked up in mid-February for violating bail conditions. He had been accused of violating public health orders, with the church conducting in-person services without social distancing and in violation of restrictions that limited capacity to 15% of the fire code.

In-person gatherings remain capped in Alberta and social interactions are limited to households only, rules that have been in place since before Christmas. Alberta has about 7,700 active cases of COVID-19, including 277 in hospital, of which 63 are in intensive care units. Deaths in the province have exceeded 1,900 since the start of the pandemic.

Coates was released on bail, but was later arrested again for holding other services in violation of health orders. As he refused to abide by the conditions of his release, between February 16 and March 22, he was held in the Edmonton remand center.

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Last Monday, Coates was released from prison after pleading guilty to violating a court covenant. Other charges were withdrawn. Coates, meanwhile, will return to court in May to fight a ticket received in December for holding over-capacity worship services. He plans to challenge the constitutionality of the public health orders that led to the ticket.

The GraceLife case drew protests and prompted other religious groups to organize services in violation of COVID-19 rules in solidarity with Coates, who maintained that his devotion to Christ required violating provincial health orders.

Erin Coates, in an affidavit filed in court, said that “her husband’s sincere religious belief is that only the Lord Jesus Christ has the power to prescribe the terms of worship at GraceLife, not any other authority,” and that COVID restrictions would disobey Christ.

“It would be like fearing man instead of fearing God, or choosing to disobey God by following the recommendation (sic) of an earthly authority that is in opposition to the commandments of God,” Erin Coates writes.

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On Sunday, Coates spoke before the sermon, saying he felt blessed to be back among his followers. According to local media reports, RCMP and Alberta Health personnel were nearby.

RCMP officers speak to people on Sunday March 28, 2021 as Pastor James Coates returns to Gracelife Church after spending 33 days in jail for disobeying public health orders. Photo par Greg Southam / Postmedia

An AHS spokesperson told the National Post that inspectors were “refused entry into the church, but noted what appeared to be violations of current health restrictions related to capacity, distance physical and masking.

The health authority said she hoped to meet with Coates soon.

Asked Monday about fears that other faith groups might follow GraceLife’s lead, Dr Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer, said the majority of Albertans were following the rules and there had been consequences for Coates and the church for violating public health orders.

With files from the Edmonton Journal

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