Canada detains pastor for defying Covid-19 restrictions with in-person services

Pastor James Coates. (Photo: YouTube)

A church pastor is being held by police in Alberta, Canada, after continuing to hold in-person services against Covid-19 regulations.

James Coates, pastor of GraceLife Church, has been detained since turning himself in to police following a visit to his church on Sunday by Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). 

It follows several run-ins with the AHS and law enforcement. Back in December the AHS ordered the church to enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks on the property, and to keep occupancy below 15%.

Then on January 21, the AHS was successful in its application to have the stipulations enforced through a court order that gave the health body power to put Pastor Coates in jail if he continued to lead in-person worship services at GraceLife. 

Following the February 7 Sunday service, two RCMP officers told Pastor Coates he was under arrest and had to stop breaching Covid regulations, but left the premises without detaining him. 

Then last weekend, he was informed that the RCMP planned to arrest him on Tuesday, at which point he turned himself in voluntarily. 

The Justice Center, which is representing Pastor Coates, said he was prepared to go to jail.

"Although painfully aware of the potential consequences, GraceLife church congregants and Pastor Coates continue to exercise their constitutional freedoms to gather normally for in-person worship services, deciding to rather face penalties imposed by the Government than violate their sincerely held religious beliefs," it said. 

The church has defended its actions in a statement saying it had gathered every Sunday "without incident" since July 2020. 

The church argues that exercising its civil liberties with in-person services is one way to "love our neighbor" and that the last year is proof that collective worship can be held safely.

"Having engaged in an immense amount of research, interacting with both doctors and frontline healthcare workers, it is apparent that the negative effects of the government lockdown measures on society far surpass the effects of Covid-19," the church said.

"The science being used to justify lockdown measures is both suspect and selective. In fact, there is no empirical evidence that lockdowns are effective in mitigating the spread of the virus.

"We are gravely concerned that COVID-19 is being used to fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties."

It added: "We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of Covid-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along.

"If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end – the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections."

According to the Justice Center, Pastor Coates will not be released unless he agrees to the AHS order.