Canadian pastor James Coates today argued in his first day of trial that government lockdowns aimed at restricting the spread of the coronavirus pandemic “are the greatest threat to the health of Alberta.”
Coates added that COVID-19 is “not much more than a flu” and that mask requirements violate religious freedom and are “an effort to transform our nation.”
Coates, the pastor of Edmonton’s GraceLife Church, went on trial today for a ticket issued Dec. 20 for breaching Alberta’s 15% capacity limit for church attendance. Coates argued that the law is unconstitutional.
However, government authorities said Coates and his church are endangering lives. Cases in Alberta have been on the rise. According to the most recent government update, Canada has over 7,000 new cases per day.
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Canadian authorities then fenced off his church building. Now his congregation reportedly meets in secret.
In testimony today, Coates said that for months, Canada’s government and the media has put pressure on Coates’s church to obey COVID-19 restrictions. Police consistently showed up at his church, he said, making it clear that they would leave only if he stopped holding services at full capacity.
“From December 13 all the way to my imprisonment must have been the most intense pressure cooker of my life,” he said. “The harassment from Health Human Resources and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was intense and loomed over us every week.”
During the trial today, health inspector Janine Hanraham testified that she repeatedly saw church members at GraceLife close together without masks. On one occasion, Hanraham said Coates called Alberta’s chief medical officer a dictator.
Coates told the court that COVID-19 restrictions imposed on freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.
“The Bible uses the analogy of the body,” he said. “The local church is the body of Christ. The body as a whole is to come together. The body of Christ is made up of many members. To come together in worship on Sundays is for that body to come together.”
By compelling Coates and his church to turn people away if they exceed mandated numbers, or if they don’t have masks, Canada’s government restricted their religious freedom, Coates said.
“I’m required by the so-called law to ask people to wear a mask,” he said. “And if I don’t, I have to ask them to leave. That’s infringing on the consciences of the people I love and care about.”
In addition, Coates said masks hamper communication without being effective at stopping the virus. He added that social distancing measures infringe on the freedom of association.
Cross-examination noted that Coates said he was willing to abide by government rules during the early days of the pandemic. Coates also said in the trial that he initially was willing to turn people away from church or split up church services if numbers of people exceeded fire code capacity.
John Carpay, the president of Canada’s Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), which represents Coates, said he hopes that the courts will uphold the church’s “charter rights and freedoms.”
He added that the case could have a major impact on Canadian religious freedom. If Coates wins, similar cases in Alberta will be decided in favor of pastors, Carpay said. But if he loses, the legal balance will sway in favor of lockdown rules.
“If (Coates loses,) we are still in a position of educating the public with the facts and helping people to let go of their unfounded fear and we can change the laws without favorable court rulings,” Carpay added.
In many provinces, Canada’s COVID-19 lockdown has remained strict. Ontario forbids religious gatherings of over 10 people, Quebec imposes 8 p.m. curfews, and Alberta forbids all indoor social gatherings.
Many Canadians believe these strict measures violate their rights. Currently, the JCCF represents 100 people across Canada, most of whom have been fined over $1,000 for violating COVID-19 restrictions.
“It was fearmongering from 2020 that put us into a state of fear,” said Carpay. “The government’ s own statistics show us the fear is not founded.”
Carpay argued that seniors and vulnerable people should be concerned about COVID-19, but most people are fairly safe.
The trial is expected to continue for the next three to four days.
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.