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Jailed Alberta pastor should be able to lead services until his trial: lawyer

·3 min read

EDMONTON — The lawyer for a pastor accused of holding Sunday services that ignored COVID-19 rules says his client should be released from jail and be free to lead worshippers until his trial.

James Coates with GraceLife Church, west of Edmonton, has been in jail for more than two weeks and is appealing his bail conditions. Queen's Bench Justice Peter Michalyshyn is to make a decision Friday.

Coates is charged with violating Alberta's Public Health Act and with breaking a promise to abide by conditions of his bail release, which is a Criminal Code offence. The judge noted that Coates did not want the publication ban that is normally imposed on bail hearings.

Coates's lawyer, James Kitchen, told the judge that his client can't follow a bail condition that forbids holding church services, because that would violate the pastor's conscience by disobeying God.

"Imposing upon a pastor the condition of his release that he not pastor ... that is an embarrassment to the courts," Kitchen told Michalyshyn.

"This is a matter of deep, deep personal conscience and personal beliefs. He is compelled to obey the God he loves, he believes, as are his congregants."

Kitchen said it should be determined whether Coates's charter rights are being violated before he is jailed.

"We are putting the cart before the horse, doing things backwards," he said.

If the pastor does not agree to bail conditions, he could remain in jail for two months until his trial begins in May, Kitchen added.

The public health prosecutor, who asked the court to address her only by her title because she is concerned for her safety, argued that the pastor's release is a danger to the public.

"The one condition that was imposed is directly related to the behaviours that come under the prohibition of the Public Health Act orders," she said.

The church has been holding services that officials say break public-health orders on 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 read #freejamescoates.

GraceLife Church has continued to hold services, even though Coates is in custody. Many gathered for a service again on the weekend, as RCMP and Alberta Health Services monitored the situation.

"Observations were again made that the church held a service beyond the designated capacity,'' the Mounties said in a news release.

"The Parkland RCMP remain engaged in continued consultations with several partner agencies to determine the most productive course of action in relation to the church.''

Police fined the church $1,200 in December and a closure order was issued in January.

Coates had been addressing the province's health restrictions in his sermons. He told worshippers that governments exist as instruments of God and there should be unfettered freedom of worship.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press