Complying with health authority meant 'non-compliance with God,' Alberta pastor testifies

An Alberta pastor accused of leading church services in violation of public-health orders says the COVID-19 pandemic has been blown out of proportion by the government and the media.

James Coates on trial, facing one charge of violating the Public Health Act

James Coates appears on the pulpit of Gracelife. The pastor and the Edmonton-area church still face one charge of violating Alberta's Public Health Act. (GraceLife Church of Edmonton/Youtube)

An Alberta pastor accused of leading church services in violation of public health orders says the COVID-19 pandemic has been blown out of proportion by the government and the media.

Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church testified on the first day of his trial Monday, and complained multiple times about how difficult it was to speak with a mask on.

Coates, 41, spent a month in the Edmonton Remand Centre after he violated a bail condition not to hold church services that officials have said ignored measures on capacity limits, physical distancing and masking.

He was released March 22 after pleading guilty, and was fined $1,500.

Coates challenged the one charge he still faces of violating the Public Health Act during his cross-examination.

'The COVID narrative'

He said provincial regulations meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 not only infringe on his and his congregants' constitutional right to freedom of religion and peaceful assembly, but he's convinced they are an overreaction.

"The government has been able to essentially do whatever it wants and you've got the media that just fear-monger the people into believing the COVID narrative," he said. "The supreme law of the land, the charter, is being ignored."

Coates testified that he believes masking is a violation of his charter right to worship and gather because it has hindered his speaking and made it difficult for him to be a pastor.

He said having services online or capping the congregation at 15 per cent also altered the true meaning of worship.

"We determined that complying with AHS meant non-compliance with God so we decided, 'OK, well, who would you rather be [in] noncompliance with? God or AHS?' And I think the choice is pretty simple."

'Risky' behaviours

A Crown prosecutor, whose identity is under a publication ban due to security concerns, called only one witness.

Janine Hanrahan with Alberta Health Services testified that she observed multiple "risky" behaviours at the Edmonton-area church, from November 2020 to December 2020.

She said that on Nov. 22, she arrived at the church before the service had begun and observed a few people inside. Only some had masks on, she said.

Hanrahan said she made several recommendations to the pastor about what they could do to reduce the spread  — such as wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

Hanrahan said more complaints about the church prompted Alberta Health Services to return on Dec. 13, but that time she arrived with two RCMP officers because she was concerned for her safety.

She said she saw 200 congregants singing, cheering and clapping next to each other and dozens of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the lobby of the building, which has capacity for 600 people.

The 15 per cent limit allowed a total of 92 people to be inside the building.

Hanrahan testified that was also the day she heard Coates tell an RCMP officer that Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, was a dictator and Premier Jason Kenney was hiding behind her.

Hanrahan said a ticket was issued to Coates on Dec. 20 for breaching the 15 per cent capacity limit.

Supporters of GraceLife Church pastor James Coates gathered outside the Edmonton courthouse for the start of his trial Monday. (David Bajer/CBC)

Coates, who is represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, testified the church initially followed the pandemic regulations. But Coates said he heard Kenney call the pandemic an over-reaction and became convinced the measures were excessive.

He said the church had 37 Sunday services without any positive cases before it was shut down and fenced off in April.

The pastor said the church has continued holding services since then and has seen an increase in congregants.

Coates will continue his testimony Tuesday.