Canadian pastor James Coates, who disobeyed the law to fully open his church, will be freed from jail, Canada’s government announced.
Coates will be released as early as March 19, according to Canada’s Justice Center for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF), which is representing Coates. The government dropped all major charges against the pastor; a minor charge for violating an order of the Chief Medical Officer of Health remains.
Coates has been in jail for nearly a month. He refused to leave prison on bail because doing so required that he agree to stop leading church services at full capacity.
James Coates’ wife, Erin Coates, told FaithWire news that he spent the first two weeks of prison in quarantine, mostly alone. At first, another prisoner shared a cell with him, but when his case gained publicity, authorities removed the other prisoner from the cell.
Canada’s Alberta province arrested James Coates because he hosted church services at above 15% building capacity and without social distancing.
Give a gift of any size to The Roys Report and receive a copy of “Day of the Wolf.” To donate, click here.
Province leaders say Alberta has some of the lightest COVID-19 restrictions for churches in all Canada. If Coates split up services and told congregants to wear masks, he could keep his church open.
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.
No one in Coates’ church has died of COVID-19, the church’s website said. In Alberta, 1,952 people have died from COVID-19 so far, according to Alberta’s medical website. The average age of Alberta COVID-19 victims is 81.
In all of Canada, 918,000 people have caught COVID-19, with 22,519 deaths, according to Canada’s government website.
Many Canadian Christians have supported James Coates. More than 2,400 people have signed a Liberty Coalition Canada petition for the reopening of churches.
Ontario’s Faith Presbyterian Church pastor Steve Richardson is one of those supporting Coates. Richardson also was issued a ticket last month for continuing to host services at his church. In his provinces, church services were limited to ten people or less. Richardson continued normal services and didn’t mandate masks.
“I find myself pacing, wanting to be [in prison] with [Coates,]” said Richardson. “It’s distressing to see a man in prison for gathering his congregation for worship.”
Richardson said he was willing to close church in response to real danger from disease, but said he doesn’t think the number of deaths from COVID-19 support that action.
He added that James Coates’ case sets a precedent of government control over how a church chooses to meet. Across Canada, the government has been willing to charge pastors and elders for going to church.
James Coates graduated from John MacArthur’s The Master’s Seminary, and MacArthur has publicly expressed support for James and Erin Coates.
Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Peter Michalyshyn said Coates’ religious beliefs do not outweigh the law.
The judge told the Edmonton Journal that Coates and his church hold a “strong and literal interpretation of holy scriptures,” which commands that believers meet in person and keep their faces uncovered during worship. Some Christians have argued that wearing a mask dishonors God by covering up his image in the human face.
Coates will stand trial on May 3-5.
In a February 26 affidavit, Coates’ wife Erin expressed support for her husband.
“My husband has dedicated his life to obeying his Lord, Jesus Christ by spreading the gospel message and ministering to his congregants through preaching and teaching, leading worship, praying, counselling, presiding over the sacraments of baptism and communion, and through fellowshipping and encouraging his congregants in-person,” she said.
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.