After 35 days in jail for defying COVID-19 restrictions, Canadian GraceLife pastor James Coates was released on Monday.
The court fined Coates $1,500 for disobeying a court order to follow public health regulations, overruling his defense team’s request for a $100 fine. Coates pleaded guilty to the charge and other charges against Coates have been dropped.
Coates’s fine will be counted as paid due to the jail time he already served.
Alberta’s government jailed Coates because he led church services at full capacity without mandatory masks or social distancing in his church in Edmonton. Alberta laws currently allow services at only15% capacity with masks and social distancing.
When he was first jailed, the government offered Coates bail if he agreed to stop services, but Coates said doing so would violate his conscience.
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In a video conference, Coates told provincial judge Jeffrey Champion that he wasn’t trying to make a statement by refusing bail. He didn’t intend to become a “revolutionary” by his actions.
“I realized that’s the way society is going to perceive what’s happening here. [But] I’m simply here in obedience to Jesus Christ, and it’s my obedience to Christ that has put me at odds with the law,” said Coates.
Coates said he believes that God commands Christians to meet together and worship as a community.
Judge Champion reprimanded Coates, telling him that he had failed to protect his congregation from COVID-19.
“The shepherd ought to protect his flock,” Champion said. “Mr. Coates, you don’t get to make that decision for everyone else, and your decisions could have affected the health and safety of so many of your fellow citizens.”
According to GraceLife Church’s website, the church has only had two cases of COVID-19. However, the website claims one member has died because he was unable to access critical health care due to pandemic-related closures.
During his time in jail, Coates received support from religious freedom organizations and churches in Canada and beyond.
A fundraiser for Coates’s legal defense raised over $42,000. Liberty Coalition Canada has also circulated an online petition demanding that churches reopen.
On Facebook, The Master’s Seminary celebrated the release of Coates, who’s a graduate of the school.
“We praise God that James Coates, pastor of Grace Life Church in Alberta, Canada, is going home to his wife and children after spending five weeks in prison for obeying God rather than man,” its post said. “We are grateful that he will soon return to the pulpit and continue proclaiming the truth that Christ, and Christ alone, is the head of the church.”
In May, Coates plans to challenge in court a ticket he received in December for exceeding 15% of his church’s capacity. He will do so on constitutional grounds.
Coates’s challenge will likely be combined with Alberta’s prosecution of his church for holding illegal services, said Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms president John Carpay.
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.