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Group representing Alberta pastor jailed for breaking COVID-19 rules says he’s being released

Click to play video: 'Group representing GraceLife pastor jailed for breaking COVID-19 rules says he’s being released' Group representing GraceLife pastor jailed for breaking COVID-19 rules says he’s being released
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which is defending GraceLife Church pastor James Coates, says he’s being released from jail ahead of his May trial for breaking public health orders by holding packed Sunday services at his church west of Edmonton. Kim Smith reports – Mar 17, 2021

The group defending an Edmonton-area pastor in court after he was charged for breaking public health orders says he’s being released ahead of his May trial.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms said Wednesday that Crown prosecutors have agreed to withdraw all but one of the Public Health Act offences against Pastor James Coates.

In a news release, the group said it expects Coates will be released from jail “in the coming days, without any conditions, pending his May 3-5 trial.”

Global News has reached out to the provincial courts and Alberta Justice for comment.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the provincial court of Alberta said:

“Contrary to reports that have been circulated by parties involved in the case, there will be no court proceedings involving James Coates on March 19, 2021.

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“Proceedings pertaining to Mr. Coates have not been moved to Edmonton, and will remain in Stony Plain Provincial Court.

“A hearing pertaining to James Coates has been scheduled for Stony Plain Provincial Court at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, March 22.”

Read more: Trial date set for Edmonton-area pastor who held church services despite COVID-19 health orders

Coates was charged in February 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.

On Feb. 16, Coates’ bail condition was that he’d be released if he agreed to hold church services that followed all the public health restrictions. Coates didn’t agree.

His lawyer, James Kitchen, told a judge that Coates can’t follow a bail condition that forbids him from holding services, because that would violate his conscience by disobeying God.

A Crown lawyer argued that the pastor’s release is a danger to the public.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton court hears bail review for GraceLife Church pastor' Edmonton court hears bail review for GraceLife Church pastor
Edmonton court hears bail review for GraceLife Church pastor – Mar 4, 2021

Queen’s Bench Justice Peter Michalyshyn said in his March 5 decision that public health laws remain valid and the pastor will stay in jail for eight more weeks until his trial begins in May.

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“The law that Mr. Coates clearly intends not to be bound by remains valid and enforceable against him. Mr. Coates’s strongly held religious beliefs and convictions do not overcome those valid and enforceable laws,” Michalyshyn said.

Read more: Edmonton-area pastor accused of violating public health orders to remain in jail until trial

The Justice Centre said Coates has been at the Remand Centre since Feb. 16 but it expects he could be released “as early as Friday, March 19.”

“The Justice Centre will defend Pastor Coates on one remaining charge of violating an Order of the Chief Medical Officer of Health by challenging the lawfulness of the public health order that he is charged with violating,” the news release stated.

Click to play video: 'Enforcement agencies responsible for carrying out public health orders, not government officials: Kenney' Enforcement agencies responsible for carrying out public health orders, not government officials: Kenney
Enforcement agencies responsible for carrying out public health orders, not government officials: Kenney – Feb 3, 2021

Jay Cameron with the Justice Centre told Global News that Coates was initially charged with two offences under the Public Health Act and one criminal charge relating to a breach of undertaking. He said one of the Public Health Act charges and the criminal charge have been dropped. One Public Health Act charge remains.

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“Canada is a free and democratic society,” Cameron said. “The public health orders are not democratically issued; they’re issued by Dr. Hinshaw. She’s not democratically elected; she’s appointed. She’s not accountable to the electorate. She’s superseding the constitutional rights of citizens in Alberta.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Legal case against defiant Alberta pastor a difficult policy issue: Calgary law professor' COVID-19: Legal case against defiant Alberta pastor a difficult policy issue: Calgary law professor
COVID-19: Legal case against defiant Alberta pastor a difficult policy issue: Calgary law professor – Mar 17, 2021

Read more: GraceLife Church pastor should be allowed to lead services until his trial: lawyer

The Justice Centre says Crown prosecutors have agreed Coates can be released without conditions.

The group also says the Crown will withdraw all but one of the Public Health Act charges and the criminal charge in connection with the bail condition “and instead have charged Pastor Coates $100 for breaching the condition, which Pastor Coates has agreed to pay.”

Click to play video: 'Despite pastor behind bars, members of GraceLife Church near Edmonton continue to defy COVID-19 rules' Despite pastor behind bars, members of GraceLife Church near Edmonton continue to defy COVID-19 rules
Despite pastor behind bars, members of GraceLife Church near Edmonton continue to defy COVID-19 rules – Feb 21, 2021

The news surprised Edmonton lawyer Avnish Nanda, especially since Canada is still in the midst of a public health emergency and the pastor has indicated he won’t follow the rules.

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“Here’s the thing that’s staggering: you have someone who has been explicit that he’s going to continue to break the law and he doesn’t care of the consequences… he’s being released even though he’s admitted that,” Nanda said.

“In order for them to be released, they have to agree to abide by the law. That is the foundational, basic premise when it comes to bail conditions.

“We have this pastor who says he’s not going to do that and he’s still being released. It raises a lot of questions in terms of what motivated this decision and whether it is in the public’s interest.”

Read more: How Canadian Charter rights are playing into Alberta pastor’s fight against COVID-19 charges

The Justice Centre added: “The single charge remaining has not been withdrawn, as the Justice Centre and Pastor Coates want the matter heard at trial, to determine the constitutionality of the public health order that churches only hold worship services at 15 per cent capacity, and to compel the government to produce scientific evidence that might support these violations of Charter freedoms.”

Read more: Edmonton-area pastor accused of violating public health orders to remain in jail until trial

The trial is scheduled to take place beginning on May 3.

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“This is an opportunity for not just pastor Coates but the citizens of Alberta, to see the government’s decision-making process challenged in court and weighed against the constitutional rights,” Cameron said.

The premier and health minister were asked Thursday about the Justice Centre’s claims some charges were being dropped and Coates was being released.

“We have to keep a very clear line between those of us who are responsible for developing the policy and then the law enforcement agencies, they have a separate legal responsibly,” Jason Kenney said.

“We do not, in this country, have elected representatives micromanaging the operational decisions of the police or health or bylaw officers. We have to trust that they will make the right decisions in each circumstance.”

Tyler Shandro echoed the importance of that independent jurisdiction.

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“We have to leave the decisions about prosecution up to — and not have it be micromanaged and influenced by politicians. We have to leave that to independent third parties, whether that’s our police, our prosecutors, our public health inspectors.”

Shandro said, in most cases, public health inspectors have worked with establishments to educate and implement public health guidelines. In rare cases, when businesses or groups “flagrantly” continue to disregard public health measures, they’ve been shut down or fined, he said.

The health minister was asked what message it sends if a pastor who has stated he’ll continue holding large services in violation of health rules is released and charges against him are dropped.

“The reason we’ve had our cases come down… is because Albertans have followed the public health measures, and that includes our faith communities,” Shandro said, adding that many groups worked with Dr. Hinshaw and AHS to implement safety precautions “because they want to take care of their congregations.”

“We have seen some Albertans — whether it’s this one pastor or others — sometimes flagrantly disregarding the public health measures.

“It is a rare circumstance and it is unfortunate,” Shandro said Thursday.

“It’s frustrating for the rest of us who are following along with public health measures. We are doing our part and we want others to do the same.

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“My message to anyone who’s not following the health measures: we have to continue to do this to take care of not just ourselves, but to take care of the most vulnerable around us.”

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