EDMONTON — The pastor of an Alberta church that has met for months every Sunday in defiance of public health orders is willing to go to jail in order to do the “right thing,” according to his lawyer.
James Coates of the GraceLife Church west of Edmonton turned himself into police on Tuesday, his lawyer told CTV News. Coates was scheduled to have a bail hearing for holding a service on Feb. 14, allegedly breaching an undertaking that was issued one week earlier not to violate Alberta’s public health orders.
His lawyer, James Kitchen with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, said Coates was still in the queue as of 2 p.m.
“His first obedience is to his Lord, is to his God. And normally, obeying Jesus and obeying the government go right in hand,” Kitchen told CTV News Edmonton that afternoon. “The government’s forcing him into a position where he has to choose between disobeying God and obeying government, or obeying God and disobeying government.”
The church was first cited for, among other things, hosting more than 15 per cent of its capacity at a December service. Coates was fined $1,200. A Court of Queen’s Bench order to enforce Alberta’s public health order was issued in January when it continued to break gathering, masking, and physical distancing rules.
GraceLife has met for three consecutive weeks after it was ordered to close at the end of January. The second time, Coates was arrested and served the undertaking.
“Ultimately what Coates and GraceLife is doing is exercising their constitutionally protected rights under Section 2 of the Charter,” Kitchen said.
“The CMOH orders infringe those freedoms and the enforcement of the CMOH orders infringes those freedoms.”
According to the lawyer, Coates – who has refused to address media except in statements posted online or at the beginning of Sunday services – and the GraceLife community reject COVID-19 restrictions as “an evil that has to stop.”
“At this point, he is prepared to incur the consequences, up to and including imprisonment to continue to do what he believes is the right thing to do for his people.”
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, GraceLife added: “We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along. If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end – the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections. Our local church is clear evidence that governmental lockdowns are unnecessary. In fact, it is also evidence of how harmful they are.”
When asked if Coates was in custody, RCMP told CTV News Edmonton: “When we are in a position to update information on the Pastor or the Church, we will.”