An attorney for a pastor accused of holding Sunday services in violation of COVID-19 rules says his client should be released from prison and free to lead worshipers pending trial.
James Coates of GraceLife Church, west of Edmonton, has been in jail for more than two weeks and is appealing his bail. Peter Michalyshyn, the Queen’s bench judge, will make a decision on Friday.
Coates is charged with breaking Alberta Public Health Act and breaking a promise to honor his bail release, a criminal offense under the Criminal Code. The judge found that Coates did not want the publication ban normally imposed on bail in court hearings.
Coates attorney James Kitchen told the judge that his client could not obey a bail prohibiting worship as doing so would violate the pastor’s conscience by disobeying God.
“To put a pastor on the condition of not being a pastor … that is an embarrassment for the courts,” Kitchen told Michalyshyn.
“This is a matter of deep, deep personal conscience and personal belief. He is forced to obey the God he loves, he believes, as does his congregation.”
Kitchen said it should be determined whether Coates’ charter rights are violated before he is incarcerated.
“We put the cart in front of the horse and do things backwards,” he said.
If the pastor does not agree to the terms of the bail, he could stay in jail for two months until his trial begins in May, Kitchen added.
The Public Health Prosecutor, who asked the court to use her title only because of concerns for her safety, argued that the pastor’s release posed a threat to the public.
“The only condition that was imposed is directly related to the conduct that falls under the prohibition of the Public Health Act,” she said.
The church has held services that officials say violate public health regulations regarding attendance, masking, and distancing.
More than 50 people were gathered outside the Edmonton Courthouse and prayed for Coates during the hearing. Some held a banner that said .freejamescoates.
GraceLife Church continued to hold services even though Coates is in custody. Many gathered again for church service over the weekend as RCMP and Alberta Health Services monitored the situation.
“The church was again found to be holding a service beyond its designated capacity,” the Mounties said in a press release.
“The Parkland RCMP continues to consult with several partner agencies to determine the most productive course of action with the Church.”
Police fined the church $ 1,200 in December, and a closure order was issued in January.
Coates had addressed the province’s health restrictions in his sermons. He told believers that governments exist as instruments of God and that there should be absolute freedom of religion.
This story was produced with non-editorial funding from the Facebook-Canadian Press News Fellowship.