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On February 16th, Pastor James Coates turned himself in to the police. He was arrested “for violating a bail condition to comply with COVID-19 health orders” according to the CBC. Pastor Coates then remained in a remand centre for 35 days. But on March 22nd, after one month in a remand centre, the court released Pastor Coates. 

What happened? 

This article provides a FAQ to clarify why Pastor Coates was in a remand centre, why he was released, and what his release means.  

Why was Pastor Coates arrested? 

Pastor Coates, along with GraceLife Church Edmonton, holds the religious conviction that the whole congregation must meet together during one service. For that reason, he could not in good conscience follow the Emergency Health Orders authorized by the Alberta Health Act, which restricted building occupancy to 15% of a building’s fire-code capacity. 

In light of this stance, Alberta Health Services asked the courts to enforce their health orders against GraceLife Church Edmonton. The courts agreed to do so. The police then charged James Coates with infractions on February 7 and 14. As noted here, GraceLife Edmonton gathered more than “15% of the total operational occupant load” according to the current fire code regulations in Alberta.

Pastor Coates also received a criminal charge for failing to comply with an undertaking given to him on February 7. An undertaking signifies a promise to the courts to follow certain rules to avoid jail time. In this case, the conditions of the undertaking were abiding “by provisions of the Public Health Act.” Since GraceLife Edmonton met the following Sunday (February 14) with more than 15% of the fire code capacity, Pastor Coates breached the conditions of his undertaking. 

That is why, according to the JCCF (Pastor Coates’s legal counsel), “On Monday, February 15, the RCMP asked Pastor Coates to attend at the RCMP station. When Pastor Coates arrived, the RCMP charged him with multiple Public Health Act offences and a criminal offence related to the bail condition imposed on February 7.”

The JCCF also maintains that Pastor Coates did not agree to the undertaking on February 7. See the undertaking here, which notes that Pastor Coates refused to sign the undertaking. For that reason, Pastor Coates probably should have been arrested on February 7. That he was not arrested suggests an uneven application of the law against Pastor Coates.  

Why haven’t other pastors been arrested? 

Churches in Alberta may meet with 15% of fire code capacity. Many churches have continued to meet during the pandemic while complying with the Alberta Public Health Act (the “PHA”). A church with a fire-code capacity of 500 can meet with 75 people per service (15%).[1] This regulation could mean running two services instead of one service on Sunday morning.   

GraceLife Edmonton, however, did not comply with the PHA. Pastor Coates and GraceLife Edmonton maintain the religious conviction that the whole congregation must meet in one service. Pastor Coates, as the public leader of GraceLife Edmonton, was arrested because he violated the PHA. 

That said, GraceLife Edmonton’s contravention of public health orders does not tell the full story, since other churches also violated health guidelines after Pastor Coates’s arrest without similar applications of the law against them. This uneven application of the law suggests that Alberta law enforcement might have been attempting to make an example out of Pastor Coates.  

Why Was Pastor Coates Released?

The Crown agreed to drop the criminal charge connected to Pastor Coates’s breach of his undertaking. Although the charge he faced was no longer criminal, judge Jeffrey Champion still fined Pastor Coates $1,500, which exceeded the $100 fine that the Crown and JCCF originally asked for in a joint submission. However, since Pastor Coates spent 35 days in a remand centre, his fine has been offset against the time that he spent in custody.[2] 

The Crown also dropped all February charges for violating the PHA. However, JCCF lawyer James Kitchen informed me on March 23 that a public health violation from December still remains valid. This public health violation will be the subject of a constitutional challenge during Pastor Coates’s trial, currently scheduled for May 3, 2021.

Importantly, the judge decided that Pastor Coates may leave the remand centre without conditions, namely, the promise to follow the PHA. Earlier, the courts offered to release James Coates under the condition that he would follow Public Health Orders. That he could not do so in good conscience explains why was in a remand centre until Monday and not released earlier. 

The judge no longer enforced that condition or one like it on Pastor Coates. So on Monday, Pastor Coates left the remand centre.

Why were his charges dropped?  

John Carpay, the president of the JCCF, explains that counsel negotiated a deal in which Pastor Coates will plead not guilty to violating one health order but guilty to a second health order violation “to force the trial in May.” As noted, all February public health violations were dropped.[3] The remaining charge that will force the trial comes from December 2020. Carpay sees this as a positive since it puts the Albertan government’s health orders on trial, which he insists “are violating our rights and freedoms.”

Why will there still be a trial? 

Since the remaining charge against Pastor Coates involves meeting beyond capacity for worship, it will force the Alberta government to justify their decision to restrict worship. While governments in Canada may restrict freedoms, they must demonstrably justify these restrictions on the basis of evidence. John Carpay reports that Coates’s legal representation will (hopefully) cross-examine Deena Hinshaw.

How should we think about his arrest, release, and upcoming trial?

First, Canadians should grasp the potential for a misapplication of justice here. Pastor Coates maintains a religious conviction his whole congregation needs to assemble at one time; they also assemble without encouraging physical distancing or wearing masks. This activity conflicts with provincial bans on large gatherings, physical distancing, and masking. 

While Alberta Health Services could have used fines to enforce their orders, they asked the courts to enforce public health orders. This elevation led to Pastor Coates’s arrest. Such a move raises the unsettling prospect that Alberta law enforcement may use the public arrest of a pastor to discourage other churches from violating public health orders.

Second, keeping a non-violent offender such as Pastor Coates in custody should shock Canadians, especially since his offence involves sincere religious convictions. Such a move unhelpfully pits public health and fundamental freedoms against one another. 

Third, Christians who desire to freely worship God according to their conscience should pay close attention to Pastor Coates’s trial on May 3. The precedent it sets may have certain implications for how Christians can freely worship in the future. Christians should hope and pray for an outcome to this case that affirms the vital role that religious freedom plays in promoting the public good.  

Fourth, Pastor Coates is a father, a husband, and, most importantly, a brother in Christ. We should all be sympathetic to the stress and the pressures that this ordeal has placed on his family. As the Church in Canada, let us commit to pray for Pastor Coates and his family, no matter what anyone’s position on the issues at hand might be. 

 

 


Further reading: JCCF’s recent news release; John Carpay and Erin Coates’s recent interview; CBC’s summary. Edmonton Sun’s summary; my earlier article on the arrest. 

[1] Churches in Alberta may meet to worship, sing, and partake of the Lord’s Supper. Congregational singing is discouraged but not forbidden. Churches do have to follow guidelines that apply to all of Alberta which include wearing masks and physical distancing. 

[2] James Kitchen explained to me that 12 of his days in the remand centre specifically counted towards the fine. Interestingly, the judge calculated the 35 days in the remand at 1.5x, which equalled 53. From there, 12 days counted against his $1,500 fine. In many ways, Kitchen helped me articulate things in this article more accurately than I would have otherwise. Any mistakes, however, belong entirely to me.  

[3] Carpay seems to make a small mistake in the interview cited above. The PHA violations in February were dropped, but the December one was not. 

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