Judge rejects Canadian pastor’s challenge that worship restrictions violate religious freedom rights

James Coates
Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, speaks to the Canadian news outlet Rebel News on March 29, 2021. |

A judge in Canada has ruled against a pastor who was challenging the legality of ongoing restrictions on in-person worship gatherings as part of Alberta's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pastor James Coates and his congregation at GraceLife Church have been challenging COVID-19 lockdown rules since last June, after they returned to holding in-person worship after months of adhering to lockdown rules. 

Judge Robert Shaigec of the Provincial Court of Alberta delivered an oral ruling on Monday rejecting Coates’ claim that the provincial restrictions violated his religious freedom.

“The question today is whether the purpose, manner, or effect of enforcement of that law on December 2020 violated James Coates' religious freedoms. The answer is no,” stated the judge, as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The ongoing trial will reconvene at the end of June to further consider whether Alberta’s public health orders limiting the number of worship attendees are constitutional.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary, Alberta-based law firm representing Coates, denounced the judge's oral opinion.

“It’s obvious that government restrictions on people’s freedom to worship, assemble and associate are violated by health orders that prevent normal, regular church services from taking place,” stated JCCF President John Carpay.

“Whether restrictions are reasonable should only be considered later, after the government has finally produced medical and scientific evidence to try to justify its restrictions on Charter freedoms.”

Carpay went on to state that they were considering an appeal to the oral ruling, which would be based on what they describe as “serious errors in law.”

Officials have accused GraceLife of violating public health guidelines multiple times by holding in-person services where attendees did not socially distance themselves or wear face masks.

In March, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police charged the church as an entity for holding worship services in February that exceeded the limit of 15% capacity.

“The Church was non-compliant with the Public Health Order in that it was over the allowed capacity. The RCMP members were present for public safety and to support [Alberta Health Services], and did not go inside the church,” said RCMP in a March 10 statement.

“Investigation continues into the church by AHS and supported by the Parkland RCMP. These charges are now before the court and further comments will not be available.”

For his regular violations of public health orders, Coates turned himself in to authorities in February and was jailed for around a month, being released in March.

According to Alberta’s stage 1 guidance for in-person worship, released this month, in-person services are limited to 15% capacity unless it is a drive-in worship service in which all attendees remain in their vehicles and socially distance.

“Religious gatherings or meetings outside of regular worship services are not permitted indoors and are limited to 10 individuals in outdoor settings, with 2 meters’ distance between people from different households,” continued the guidance. “Religious rituals that involve physical contact between individuals or objects, increase the likelihood of disease transmission and should be performed in an alternate fashion that minimizes physical contact.”

According to the Alberta government's website, of as June 6, 2,248 people have died from COVID-19 among its population of more than 4.3 million. Some 14.3% of the population is fully vaccinated.  

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