James Coates, pastor of GraceLife Church near Spruce Grove, Alta.

Alberta pastor to appeal worship ruling

  • June 17, 2021

Three congregants of GraceLife Church near Spruce Grove Alta., are joining their pastor’s fight for religious freedom after a provincial court ruled Pastor James Coates’ religious and life, liberty and security freedoms were not infringed by pandemic regulations.

Judge Robert Shaigec ruled in Stony Plain Provincial Court June 7 that Coates’ freedoms were not infringed when he was issued a ticket Dec. 20 for disobeying pandemic health regulations

With legal representation from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), Coates and parishioners Donna Klay, Allan Neil and Achnes Smith filed their originating application June 10 against Alberta Health Services (AHS), Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw and Minister of Health Tyler Shandro in the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in Edmonton. The parties are striving to force Alberta’s government to repeal worship restrictions, which they deem unconstitutional, and remove the barricades and fencing around their church, installed by the RCMP April 7.

This legal effort is shaping up to be the most overt attempt to put a provincial government’s feet to the fire over pandemic state-of-emergency protocols that have been in effect at various levels of stringency since March 2020.

While leaders in the Catholic Church have compilied with governement restrictions during the pandemic, many have also criticized policies that severely restricted attendance at places of worship while some businesses could be open. GraceLife Church continues to host worship services at various secret locations.

JCCF litigation director Jay Cameron condemned Shaigec’s ruling in a phone interview with The Catholic Register.

“The decision that came out is not in accordance with the law. It’s nonsensical, perfunctory and cursory,” said Cameron. “Any time you have somebody arrested, or their building where they meet shut down, their exercise for right to assembly is prevented and right to worship is prevented — those are infringements against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on their face.”

Coates allegedly breached the Public Health Act by not adhering to the 15-per-cent capacity restriction in effect. According to the JCCF’s filing to support the new application, the ticket was issued following a service where Coates “delivered a sermon that discussed and criticized the Alberta government’s reaction to COVID-19 and public health restrictions.”

The legal document also details Coates’ 35-day imprisonment, including refusals to sign bail orders forbidding him from leading church services, GraceLife hosting services in his absence and AHS and RCMP demanding church entry after Coates was released from prison on March 22.

In his ruling, Shaigec said the government was not targeting the church or its pastor, but responding to public complaints and the decision came after attempts to get GraceLife Church to comply with public health orders.

Cameron said JCCF has been preparing the litigation for the application on behalf of Coates and his church attendees for “a little while,” but recent news developments pushed up the timeline.

“It’s been sped up by the fact that you have the (Premier Jason Kenney) and his cabinet at the ‘Sky Palace’ wining and dining out of the public eye, breaking half a dozen health rules that Albertans are cruelly punished for if they breach any of them,” said Cameron.

“And in four weeks, you have a massive rodeo that will take place on the (Calgary Stampede) grounds where you’ll have tens of thousands of people from all walks of life and all locations congregating to socialize and party. And then you have this church that poses no demonstrable risk to the public.”

Meanwhile, another pastor, Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, was arrested June 14 for violating public health restrictions after holding services for several weeks.

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