James Coates
Pastor James Coates

Canadian Pastor Jailed for Defying COVID Guidelines Awaits May Trial

By Jackson Elliott

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.

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.”

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 ElliottJackson 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.

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97 thoughts on “Canadian Pastor Jailed for Defying COVID Guidelines Awaits May Trial”

  1. While I believe it is foolish to flout sensible guidelines regarding COVID, and what this pastor did was not wise and illegal, I am also saddened to see that he was jailed for this.

    1. I wonder if this same pastor will play the persecution card and be as defiant if he gets cited by the Fire Marshal for being over the occupancy level in the building permit.

  2. Praying for you Pastor Coates.

    Dear Lord,
    In all things give thanks. I really believe that You are Sovereign and intimately aware of Pastor Coates, his wife, his boys, the church and a watching world. Lord I pray that by his testimony will be a vessel to magnify the Glory of Jesus Christ. May Your glory penetrate the souls of men in jail/prison. Let the Word of Christ dwell in him richly and a fresh way. If, it is Your will to see that this church is persecuted. Let Your Holiness be on display in the Body of Jesus Christ. I am reminded of Adoniran Judson. The life he lived. He could of been a minister at a large church in America but he chose to go to Burma. Lost everything, his wives, children and he wanted to die. He went to a dangerous jungle and dug a hole waiting to die. However, You stepped in and did an amazing work. After his life , many came to Jesus Christ. Lord whatever Your providence desires. Bring a hopeless world into the only hope that sustains the weary wanderer. Give the Coates’ family the heart of a Judson. In the Strong Name of Jesus!

    1. Thank you KC for that prayer, so kind. For this is my family. And even though we may not agree on all, and they know we don’t, we still love and pray for them. He is doing what He believes he is convicted by the Lord to do. So thank you again for your kindness.

    2. I would hardly call what is happening to Coates persecution. It really makes a mockery of of every Christian martyr since Stephan in the book of Acts. And so do you.

      Would be it be persecution if the Coates has more people in his church than the occupancy permit allows and he is repeatedly fined by the Fire Marshall for defiantly violating that occupancy limit? Yes or No?

      1. Tell me would it be persecution if Tim Coates gets ejected from say a shopping or other private property for having his service on their grounds without their permission? Yes or No?

        Would it be persecution if Tim Coates has his church service in a building that is not up to building codes and the local fire marshall/building inspector shuts it down?
        Yes or No?

        In all these cases, just like the COVID occupancy restrictions, worship is NOT prohibited NOR are you ordered to worship anyone other than God (so you CANNOT use Scriptures to defend it). PERIOD.

  3. The Court of Queens Bench Alberta Justice made a narrow ruling today in the case of James Coates and the conditions for his pre-trial release.

    Were there legal errors in conditions of Coates release imposed by the Justice of the Peace?

    The justice ruled there wasn’t and that Coates ” unconditional release posed a risk to the public was sound, given Coates’ “unrepentant admission” that he will continue to violate public health rules.”

    So, Coates and his conscience remain in jail.

    In an interesting aside the Crown asked to appear by title rather than by name because of threats.

    John Carpay of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms says no one at the church is violent and the withholding of the Crown prosecutors name was ‘disgraceful.’

    He told the Edmonton Journal, ““I think it’s slimy for her to insinuate that somehow her safety is endangered.”

    Really?
    Has Carpay been to that church and asked everyone?
    He knows she is safe how exactly?
    Has he seen the various extremist groups protesting with church members?
    Are they all non-violent also?

    As expected I think Coates is the poster boy for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms on a Charter challenge, since so few priests, ministers and religious leaders have defied public health law. Carpay has said his group will take this to the Supreme Court of Canada if they lose this case and subsequent appeals.

    GraceLife Church has continued to defy public health orders. Will other leaders of this church be joining Coates at the Edmonton Remand Centre?

    https://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/gracelife-church-pastor-james-coates-denied-release-trial-to-run-may-3-5

  4. I like David French’s observations. Being “Pro-Life” should include willingness to wear a mask and social distance until herd immunity is reached in a few months.

  5. GraceLife Church (as an entity) has been charged for exceeding the 15% capacity limit under the Alberta Public Health Act.

    The church lawyer was served – the first court date is set for May 5th.

    Attendees at the church have also not been masking or social distancing – the RCMP continue to monitor.

    The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has said they may be representing the church. They currently represent James Coates.

    The lawyer for the church was served March 4th, and the church continued defying orders this past Sunday.

    https://globalnews.ca/news/7689016/alberta-gracelife-church-charged-covid-19/

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