Edmonton

Alberta pastor charged with breaking COVID-19 health orders to appeal bail conditions

James Coates is charged with violating Alberta's Public Health Act and with breaking a promise to abide by conditions of his bail release, which is a Criminal Code offence.

Gracelife Church Pastor has been in jail for two weeks

GraceLife Church in Parkland County, west of Edmonton, has been holding Sunday services in contravention of public health orders, RCMP say. (Andreane Williams/Radio-Canada)

An Alberta pastor accused of holding Sunday services that violated COVID-19 rules is set to appeal his bail conditions today.

James Coates with GraceLife Church, west of Edmonton, has been in jail for just over two weeks.

Coates is charged with violating Alberta's Public Health Act and with breaking a promise to abide by conditions of his bail release, which is a Criminal Code offence.

The church has been holding services that officials say break public-health orders on attendance, masking and distancing.

A judge has ordered Coates to go to trial in May.

A lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor.

The group says the lawyer will argue that his client's imprisonment and the charge he faces violate his charter freedoms of conscience, religion, association and peaceful assembly.

The judge is also to hear a statement from Coates's wife about the effect the pastor's imprisonment has had on his family and community members.

"Charter freedoms do not disappear because the government declares regular church services to be outlawed, while allowing hundreds of people to fill their local Walmarts," Justice Centre president John Carpay said in a statement.

"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."

The church has continued to hold services, even though Coates is in jail. Many gathered again on the weekend as RCMP and Alberta Health Services monitored the situation.

"Observations were again made that the church held a service beyond the designated capacity," the Mounties said in a news release.

"The Parkland RCMP remain engaged in continued consultations with several partner agencies to determine the most productive course of action in relation to the church."

Police fined the church $1,200 in December and a closure order was issued in January.

Coates had been addressing the province's health restrictions in his sermons. He told worshippers that governments exist as instruments of God and there should be unfettered freedom of worship.

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