Editor’s note: A prior version of this story erroneously quoted lawyer John Carpay of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms as saying he didn’t think the pastor would abide by unscientific public health workers. In fact, he said he didn’t think the pastor would abide by public health orders. The story has been corrected.
A trial date has been set for a jailed Alberta pastor who is accused of holding Sunday services that violated COVID-19 rules.
James Coates with GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, near Edmonton, did not appear in court Wednesday when a date for a three-day trial was set to start May 3. He was arrested last week and remanded in custody after refusing to agree to bail conditions.
Coates was charged this month for violating Alberta’s Public Health Act and breaking a promise to abide by rules of his bail release, which is a Criminal Code offence. The church has been holding services that officials say break public-health regulations on attendance, masking and distancing.
John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, the organization representing Coates, said lawyer James Kitchen plans to file an application with the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench seeking the pastor’s release until the trial begins.
Carpay said Kitchen will argue that the provincial government needs to be held accountable for COVID-19 rules that infringe on constitutional rights.
“The health orders violate our Charter Section 2 rights to assemble and associate worship, Section 6 rights to move and to travel, and Section 7 charter rights to life, liberty and security,” Carpay said.
“If the past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, I don’t think it’s likely that pastor Coates is going to abide by public health orders.”
Several people gathered outside the Stony Plain courthouse in support of the pastor and urged Premier Jason Kenney to lift COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday.
“Our governing authorities are acting criminally and all this is against our constitutional rights and freedoms,” said Jasmine Tucker, who has been going to GraceLife Church for 10 years and has continued attending church since Coates’ arrest.
“We’re devastated by what has happened. We have the right to go to church and worship God the way that God tells us to. We pray that churches will open, that churches stand up and say this is not right.”
Tucker said she has been in touch with the pastor’s wife and has been told he is doing OK in jail.
“He is faithful, he is courageous, and he is honouring the Lord.”
Police fined the church $1,200 in December and a closure order was issued in January.
Coates has addressed the province’s health restrictions in his sermons, telling worshippers that governments exist as instruments of God and there should be unfettered freedom of worship.
Jacob Spenst, an associate pastor of the church, conducted last Sunday’s service and told the congregation that messages of support have been pouring in for the jailed pastor.
The court says it will reconvene with lawyers on March 5 for a case management plan by teleconference.