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Pastor of Alberta church accused of breaking COVID-19 health rules held in custody

Pastor James Coates of GraceLife church was remanded in custody after refusing to abide by conditions of his release pending trial, police said.
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EDMONTON — An Alberta pastor was in custody Wednesday after being charged by police a second time with breaking public health rules tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pastor James Coates of GraceLife church was remanded in custody after refusing to abide by conditions of his release pending trial, police said.

He is to appear in court Feb. 24.

“We’ve been consistent in our approach of escalated levels of enforcement with Pastor Coates, and we were hopeful to resolve this issue in a different manner,” RCMP Insp. Mike Lokken said in a news release.

“The pastor’s actions and the subsequent effects those actions could have on the health and safety of citizens dictated our response.”

The church, located just west of Edmonton, has been defying health orders for weeks, holding services that officials say break health rules on maximum attendance, masking and distancing.

Recent Sunday services have had up to 300 members, and Coates was charged a second time after police said last Sunday’s service again broke health rules

Faith-based services are limited to 15 per cent of normal capacity and mask use is mandatory. Physical distancing between households must be maintained. There can be choir singing and music, but performers must wear masks.

It’s the latest in an escalating confrontation with the church since renewed health restrictions were imposed by the province in December.

Coates has addressed the issue in his sermons, telling worshippers that governments exist only as instruments of God and must follow God’s plan, which includes unfettered freedom of worship.

He said when governments fail to follow God’s plan, churches have a duty to challenge and push them back onto the proper path.

"We must call government to its God-ordained duty,'' Coates told the congregation at last Sunday’s sermon, which was later archived to social media.

"(Any) attempt to dictate to us the terms of worship is not the government's jurisdiction, and I refuse to give the government what isn't theirs. Caesar has no jurisdiction here.''

The police fined the church $1,200 in December. A closure order was issued in January, but it was ignored. 

When the Sunday services continued, Coates was charged Feb. 7 with one count of violating the Public Health Act, and he was released.

Police said they charged Coates again after last Sunday’s service and also charged him with violating his promise to abide by rules of his release, a Criminal Code offence.

"Following a bail hearing before a justice of the peace, Coates was to be released (Tuesday) on conditions," said the RCMP news release.

"He remained in custody overnight after refusing to agree to those conditions. This morning in Stony Plain provincial court he continued to refuse to agree with those conditions."

The move comes as provincial health officials continue to impose restrictions on all public activity to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, noting that new and more contagious strains have the potential to spread quickly and overwhelm the health system.

On Tuesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's the chief medical officer of health, said the majority of businesses, community organizations and faith-based groups are following the rules. But she said she is disappointed at the outliers who put others at risk.

At Sunday's service, Coates told the congregation that he, too, is concerned that the virus could overwhelm the health system. But he said if that happens, he'll pitch in to help and will urge others to do the same.

Hinshaw said COVID-19 care requires specialists, and if the pandemic expands to the point the health system is swamped, mass volunteerism can’t fix it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press