James Coates, the pastor of GraceLife Church outside Edmonton, remains in custody after appearing in court before a judge Wednesday morning.
The church and its pastor have been found to be repeatedly in violation of public health restrictions put in place to reduce transmission of COVID-19. The public health rules include a 15 per cent capacity and physical distancing.
Coates was fined in December, Alberta Health Services ordered the church to close in January and then Coates was arrested and charged in early February for contravention of the Public Health Act.
Last Sunday, RCMP and AHS went to the church to “assess compliance in relation to conditions issued to the pastor on Feb. 7,” RCMP said in a news release.
“Observations were made that James Coates was not complying with his undertaking release conditions, and the church was not in compliance with the Public Health Order.”
Because of that, the RCMP said it would be furthering its investigation into the church and its pastor.
“To be very clear, the RCMP’s objective is not to interrupt church services, prohibit services, nor deny peoples’ right to practice their religion — merely to ensure that public health restrictions are adhered to while doing so,” Insp. Mike Lokken said.
On Tuesday, Coates turned himself in, RCMP said.
“He was charged with two counts of contravention of the Public Health Act and charged for failing to comply with a condition of his undertaking, under the Criminal Code,” RCMP said Wednesday.
There was a bail hearing on Wednesday morning and Coates “was to be released on conditions.” However, “he continued to refuse to agree with those conditions and a judge’s order was issued compelling him to attend court on Wednesday, Feb. 24,” RCMP said in a news release.
“We’ve been consistent in our approach of escalated levels of enforcement with Pastor Coates, and we were hopeful to resolve this issue in a different manner,” Lokken said.
“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.”
RCMP also confirmed a member of the GraceLife Church administration is a former RCMP officer who retired in October 2014.
“Our response to the non-compliance of the church has been consistent with our overall RCMP strategy in the province which is; education, an opportunity for compliance, and lastly, enforcement,” Insp. Lokken said in a statement.
“Parkland RCMP has managed the investigation into the GraceLife Church with absolutely no influence from any member of their administration or congregation, regardless of any past or present affiliation with our organization.
“The RCMP has conducted all their interactions with the church in an impartial, professional, and respectful manner.”
In a news release, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms said it is representing GraceLife Church and Coates and is appealing his imprisonment to the Court of Queen’s Bench.
On two consecutive Sundays in February, RCMP attended services at GraceLife Church and told Coates he was breaking public health orders and asked him to stop holding services as he had been.
“He did not agree to the undertaking,” the Justice Centre said in a news release. “At that point, the RCMP were supposed to take him immediately before a Justice of the Peace, but the RCMP did not do so.”
On Feb. 15, Coates was charged.
The centre claims that at the bail hearing, “the Justice of the Peace ordered Pastor Coates released on the condition that he stop holding church services, a condition he could not, in good conscience, agree to. Pastor Coates is currently in jail, awaiting trial, as he will not be released unless he agrees to the condition or the prosecutor agrees to withdraw the condition,” the centre said.
The group is also asking the premier to rescind the health orders. The group asserts Coates has been jailed “for exercising his Charter freedoms of conscience, religion, association and peaceful assembly.”