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Church continues to hold in-person services despite pastor being jailed for violating Covid restrictions

A Canadian church has continued to hold in-person services despite its own pastor being jailed for flouting Covid-19 rules.

Congregants were seen flooding into GraceLife Church's car park in Edmonton on Sunday, despite being ordered by police to stay away. The church's senior pastor, James Coates, remains behind bars after refusing to agree to his bail conditions. His three-day trial is due to start on May 3. Coates has been charged with violating Alberta’s Public Health Act and refusing to abide by rules of his bail release, which is a Criminal Code offence. 

Coates' lawyer - John Carpay of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms - is insistent that the trial should be brought forward. “A trial set eight weeks down the road is too long for an innocent Pastor to be in jail," he said. "Pastor Coates is a peaceful Christian minister. The Justice of the Peace should not have required him to violate his conscience and effectively stop pastoring his church as a condition to be released. This is a miscarriage of justice." 

Police say that GraceLife's services have been breaking public-health regulations on attendance, mask-wearing and social distancing.

On Sunday, a heavy police presence was seen around the church. In a statement on the day, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that they were continuing their “investigation into the circumstances of the operations of the GraceLife Church". 

Police officers and Alberta Health Services (AHS) officials said they had “attended the GraceLife Church to gather evidence in relation to their service and non-compliance with the public health order" and that "observations were again made that the church held a service beyond the designated capacity".

The RCMP say they remain "engaged in continued consultations with several partner agencies to determine the most productive course of action in relation to the church". No further action has been taken at this time. 

On Saturday, supporters of pastor Coates held a rally at the Prince George cenotaph. Organiser Timothy Schouten is urging people to pray for the pastor at this difficult time. 

“The arrest and continued detention of Pastor James are a trial for him and his family and church,” he told the Prince George Citizen. “We want to bring them before God in public prayer." 

Schouten added: "Not many churches have taken the approach as GraceLife Church to the current restrictions. We are concerned about what his imprisonment means for the freedom of the church, and of all Canadians.

"We believe that the current restrictions on worship are a clear and significant breach of our Charter rights. The fact a Canadian pastor is in jail for preaching in what used to be a normal worship service concerns us greatly.”

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms will head to court on Monday to challenge British Columbia's new prohibition on in-person worship services. 

Staff Lawyer Brandon Langhjelm insisted that the public health orders have made it "illegal for British Columbians to gather to exercise the sacred and fundamental right of religious worship, even in a safe and responsible manner". 

He added: "Yet the orders permit other forms of indoor public gathering to continue, including in restaurants, gyms, and support groups. They allow big box stores to accept hundreds of people at a time. This is arbitrary, unjust and unconstitutional.”

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