A Canadian pastor has been jailed and is awaiting a May 3 trial date for refusing to comply with government guidelines aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19.
Alberta’s Public Health Act allows worship services at 15% capacity while wearing masks and social distancing. However, Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Alberta has repeatedly exceeded capacity and violated distancing mandates.
Last week, authorities called for Coates’ arrest and the pastor turned himself into police. The pastor said he cannot obey Alberta’s COVID-19 restrictions because they violate his religious freedom.
Coates refused release on bail because he said authorities were requiring that he stop preaching and holding church services.
Pastor James Coates held a church service on Feb 14. RCMP asked him to turn himself in yesterday, which he did. He is now being held in jail unless he commits to cease holding church services. He could not, in good conscience, agree to this condition.#churchismorethanessential pic.twitter.com/mBzKXj1bn9
— Liberty Coalition Canada (@LibertyCCanada) February 17, 2021
Canadian civil rights groups have also protested the nation’s COVID-19 restrictions. And the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has filed a petition challenging government restrictions on worship services and peaceful protests. Canada currently allows hundreds of people to visit stores, the group says, but places churches under stricter restrictions.
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However, Alberta communications advisor Carla Jones said that Alberta’s COVID guidelines are some of least restrictive in Canada, and are less restrictive for churches than other establishments.
“While others have completely prohibited attendance or placed hard caps on attending places of worship, Alberta allows up to 15% of fire code occupancy,” Jones wrote in an email to The Roys Report. “Furthermore, there are no limitations on the number of services a place of worship can offer every day. The 15% limit is the same public health provision for retail, and less restrictive than provisions for restaurants and bars.”
Similarly, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stated on Facebook that the province has no restrictions on preaching and gathering as Coates’ claimed, provided pastors follow safety guidelines.
“The suggestion that Alberta has any restriction on preaching is completely false,” Kenney stated. “Under Alberta law, no one has been or will be fined or sanctioned for preaching. Anybody in Alberta can preach their faith and, and religious communities are encouraged to gather in congregational worship within the safe guidelines laid out by Alberta Health.”
The Roys Report reached out to GraceLife Church for comment, but the church did not respond.
Coates graduated from The Master’s Seminary where Pastor John MacArthur serves as chancellor emeritus.
Last Sunday, MacArthur, whose church has also faced legal battles for violating COVID guidelines, expressed support for Coates in a prayer. He said Coates was in jail because he had been faithful to God.
“We pray for James and Erin his wife,” he said. “We pray that through this, your kingdom would advance, and we know that the enemy cannot conquer because Christ has triumphed,” MacArthur said.
MacArthur’s church reportedly has experienced two outbreaks of COVID-19, but some church leaders and members claimed the church pressured them not to report COVID-19 cases.
GraceLife, however, claims on its website that the church has had only two cases of COVID-19 since it resumed services last summer.
Violating COVID-19 quarantine laws is a criminal offense in Canada which can carry a penalty of up to $1 million in fines and three years in jail. Authorities charged GraceLife a $1,200 fine in December and sent the church a closure order in January.
To support Coates, many Canadians rallied Saturday outside his jail, footage from Ontario pastor Henry Hildebrandt showed.
On Twitter, people showed a polarized response to Coates’ decision. Some said he was a hero and pledged to stand with him. “Pastor James Coates is true hero,” one wrote. “His actions match his words. Prayers are offered by my church for heaven’s justice to vindicate him before all men.”
Others criticized Coates for “breaking the law and putting public health at risk to raise his own profile.”
No. This guy is breaking the law and putting public health at risk to raise his own profile. Not following God at all.
— Sean P (@stupug90) February 18, 2021
The GraceLife website explained Coates’ decision by saying that the “negative effects of the government lockdown measures on society far surpass the effects of COVID-19.” The statement claimed that the lockdown has caused deaths by limiting access to healthcare and creating psychological stress, which leads to suicide.
It also called into question the science being used to justify lockdown measures and claimed there is “no empirical evidence that lockdowns are effective in mitigating the spread of the virus.”
“Without going into detail, we recently lost the life of one of our precious congregants who was denied necessary health care due to government lockdown measures,” the statement said. “In fact, it would seem that COVID-related deaths are being treated as though they are somehow more tragic than any and all other deaths.”
Jackson Elliott is a Christian journalist trained at Northwestern University. He has worked at The Daily Signal, The Inlander, and The Christian Post, covering topics ranging from D.C. politics to prison ministry. His interests include the Bible, philosophy, theology, Russian literature, and Irish music.