'Shepherd ought to protect his flock:' Judge fines, releases jailed Alberta pastor

·3 min read

STONY PLAIN, Alta. — An Alberta pastor who was kept in jail for violating a bail condition to comply with COVID-19 health orders was to be freed Monday without conditions.

James Coates of GraceLife Church pleaded guilty to a charge of breaching bail and was fined $1,500.

However, a judge said the 35 days Coates had spent in custody would count as credit for the entire fine.

Coates was charged in February after officials said the church west of Edmonton had violated public-health measures meant to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

Provincial court Judge Jeffrey Champion agreed to drop all but one charge against Coates. The pastor is to go to trial in May on a count under Alberta’s Public Health Act for holding services that allegedly broke a restriction on the size of gatherings.

Crown prosecutor Leighton Grey and a defence lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom, a group representing the pastor, had suggested Coates be fined $100 for breaching the court undertaking.

The judge disagreed.

"I question whether $100 is a proper denunciation of the conduct of Mr. Coates as well as proper deterrence for others that might feel that 'I can violate the directions of the chief medical officer of health and get $100 fine,'" Champion said.

"It is an issue when someone makes a decision that can affect the health and the lives of thousands of people."

The judge said that when the pastor was arrested, the spread of COVID-19 was a serious concern and services at the church could have been "super-spreaders" of the novel coronavirus.

"Members of that (church) were going out into the community in general," said the judge, who noted that Coates has referred to himself as a shepherd.

"The shepherd ought to protect his flock," Champion said.

"Mr. Coates. you don't get to make that decision for everyone else, and your decisions could have affected the health and safety of so many of your fellow citizens."

The pastor, wearing an orange-and-black jumpsuit and taking a mask off his face, told the judge in a video conference that he wasn't trying to make a statement by not complying with his bail conditions.

"I realized that's the way society is going to perceive what's happening here. (But) I'm simply here in obedience to Jesus Christ, and it's my obedience to Christ that has put me at odds with the law," said Coates.

"The court is aware that I'm contesting the legitimacy of that law but please, make no mistake ... I'm not trying to make a point. I'm not a political revolutionary."

GraceLife has continued to hold weekend services while Coates has been in jail, including one this past weekend. Alberta Health Services said officials did not monitor the latest gathering.

Two weeks ago, the church itself was charged with violating health measures.

Provincial regulations restrict in-person attendance at churches to 15 per cent capacity and call for congregants to physically distance and wear masks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 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