Justice Centre says pastor of Edmonton-area church to be released

·2 min read

EDMONTON — A group that supports an Alberta pastor jailed after being charged with violating COVID-19 public-health orders says it expects him to be released in the coming days.

Crown prosecutors have dropped all but one charge against James Coates and have agreed to his release without bail conditions, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms said Wednesday

In an email, Alberta Crown Prosecution Service said it was not appropriate for prosecutors to comment on an ongoing case.

Coates, who preaches at GraceLife Church west of Edmonton, has been in jail for a month for allegedly holding services that violated public health rules on the size of gatherings.

Jay Cameron, a lawyer with the Justice Center, said two RCMP officers met with Coates after a service Feb. 7 and imposed a condition on the pastor that he only hold church services that followed public-health orders.

Coates refused to follow the condition, said Cameron, who added the RCMP should have taken the pastor before a justice of the peace but instead left the church.

"Instead he was released on not a valid undertaking because he never gave one. And now that charge has been withdrawn and we think that's correct," Cameron said.

After he was charged, Coates was jailed when he continued to hold services in defiance of a bail order not to do so. In early March, his lawyers appealed with the argument that it would go against the pastor's conscience before God not to lead worshippers.

A public health prosecutor argued that the pastor's release would be a danger to the public.

The judge ruled that Coates remain behind bars until his trial in May.

"The condition that Pastor Coates effectively stop doing his job as a pastor by adhering to unscientific and unconstitutional public health restrictions should never have been imposed on him by the RCMP, or by the court," Justice Centre president John Carpay said in a news release Wednesday.

"We look forward to appearing in court in May and demanding the government provide evidence that public health restrictions that violate the freedoms of religion, peaceful assembly, expression and association are scientific and are justifiable in a free and democratic country."

GraceLife has continued to hold weekend services while Coates has been in jail. Last week, the church itself was charged.

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.

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

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press