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On February 16th 2021, Pastor James Coates turned himself in to the police. According to the CBC, he was arrested “on two counts of contravening the Public Health Act and on one criminal charge for failing to comply with a condition of an undertaking.” Pastor Coates is now held in a remand centre (a provincial prison) under quarantine as part of COVID-19 protocol.

What happened here?

The following FAQ aims to clarify the facts in order to accurately understand the matter.

Why should you care about this?

Canadians who support religious freedom should be concerned about this case: the arrest of a Canadian pastor in connection to religious practice creates an unsettling precedent. At the same time, we should also note that Churches in Alberta may meet at 15% of the fire-code capacity to worship, preach, receive the Lord’s supper, baptize, and otherwise worship.

What does it mean that Pastor Coates contravened the Public Health Act?

Pastor Coates broke provincial law when he organized and hosted gatherings that contravened public health orders. While churches can meet for worship in Alberta, GraceLife Church of Edmonton gathered more persons than the temporary fire code capacity limit allows and did not accommodate for physical distancing or request mask-wearing. You can read the Alberta Health Services report for February 14th here.

What does it mean that Pastor Coates failed to comply with a condition of undertaking? 

In January, Alberta Health Services asked the court to enforce its public health orders. On February 7th, Pastor Coates received an undertaking with the condition that he would comply with Health Orders (i.e., the condition of the undertaking) until a full hearing on the merits of his case.

The CBC has reported that Pastor Coates has failed “to comply with a condition of an undertaking,” which seems to mean that he was legally obligated to follow the undertaking delivered on February 7th. However, James Kitchen, Pastor Coates’s lawyer, questions the validity of this undertaking since Pastor Coates did not agree to it. According to Kitchen, the crown has charged Pastor Coates under section 145(4)(a) of the Criminal Code.

Why did Pastor Coates turn himself in for arrest? 

Since Pastor Coates did not comply with the undertaking (i.e., by following the court’s orders), he was subject to arrest. For this reason, he turned himself in to the police. Due to breaking the conditions of his undertaking he is now liable to be found in contempt of court, which may attract further liability under the Criminal Code.

What are the conditions for release? 

Pastor Coates is being held until such time as he agrees to comply with the court’s undertakings, namely, following public health orders. These undertakings likely include hosting religious services with allowance for distancing and making the request that attendees wear masks; it would likely also include limiting the number of those who can enter the building at one time. Pastor Coates’s lawyer, James Kitchen, explains this here (6:30ff).

Pastor Coates has declined to accept these conditions and so remains in a remand centre. As Kitchen explains, “He couldn’t in good conscience agree with that … he could in effect pastor his church but not in a way that would accord with his conscience and with his religious beliefs” (see here: 7:44).

Why can’t his family see him at the remand centre? 

Due to COVID-19 regulations, pastor Coates has to undergo a 14-day quarantine. After this time he will, presumably, be accessible through ordinary visiting hours and regulations.

Why haven’t other pastors been arrested? 

Churches in Alberta may meet for worship including preaching, receiving the Lord’s Supper, conducting Baptism, and other religious activities because of special exemptions to the province-wide ban on indoor gatherings for religious groups under the public health orders.

They must, however, adhere to certain public health orders. Pastor Coates was arrested because he did not adhere to the conditions of his undertaking (i.e., follow the Court’s order that he adhere to these Guidelines).

Is this proportionate justice? 

Using the courts to make this a criminal matter is a potential overreach. It pits the rule of law (contempt for our courts and justice system) against freedom of conscience and religion, using the courts as a tool to impinge these freedoms. For those invested in preserving religious freedom in Canada, Pastor Coates’s arrest should be unsettling.

However, it is important to recognize that courts themselves are incapable of limiting or infringing the constitution (including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) in the same way that other government actors can. Courts are tasked with interpreting and applying the constitution, though they are also bound to abide by constitutional values as they do so.

Should we support Pastor Coates? 

Christians can disagree in good conscience with this church’s specific contravention of public health orders. But those who support freedom of conscience and religion should oppose any disproportionate use of the law to criminalize Pastor Coates. For a practical way to support religious freedom in Alberta, see this letter to Premier Kenney.

What should we pray for?

While I do not agree with Pastor Coates’s decision to contravene public health orders, he and his church need our prayers. We must also remember that Pastor Coates’s wife and children cannot see their father during his time in quarantine. They need prayer. At a very human level, we need patience and compassion in this situation.

The Government and Alberta Health Services also need our prayers. We should pray for our leaders and support them in appropriate ways. Government is just people, after all.

Whatever comes out of all of this, my hope is that we can remember that Christian unity centres on the Gospel of Jesus Christ even though we do not all have uniform practice.

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