A judge in Canada ruled Monday that the religious freedoms of Alberta Pastor James Coates — who was in jail for more than a month after holding in-person worship services at his church despite COVID restrictions — were not violated.
Coates, who leads GraceLife Church in Edmonton, recently submitted a Charter challenge, claiming pandemic-related health orders in Alberta violated his religious liberties.
Provincial court Judge Robert Shaigec, however, disagreed. He dismissed the pastor’s application Monday, The Canadian Press reported.
According to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which is representing Coates, the judge acknowledged the “sincerity of Pastor Coates’ religious convictions,” but suggested his religious freedoms weren’t “reasonably threatened in more than an insubstantial way.”
Shaigec went on to argue a 35-day stint behind bars for preaching to a full congregation was not a violation of Coates’ religious freedoms because he could have been released had he acquiesced to “a single condition,” which was that he agreed to stop leading services and restricted his congregation to only 15% of the facility’s total operational capacity — a stipulation Coates argued violated his conscience as a pastor.
“He chose to remain in jail,” Shaigec said of Coates, according to CTV News. “It was Mr. Coates’ choice to make.”
Coates was ultimately released in late March without any conditions and the government dropped all but one of its charges against the preacher.
“The argument that James Coates was forced to either forsake his conscience or secure his liberty has been answered,” Shaigec said. “Religious freedoms are subject to the rule of law.”
Coates’ lawyers argued Alberta health orders restricting attendance at venues — including churches — violated charter rights centering on freedom of expression and religion. His attorneys also stated their belief that GraceLife and Coates were singled out by government and law enforcement officials.
Shaigec rejected their arguments, claiming it was public complaints that resulted in inspectors placing their microscopes over the church.
“Similar restrictions apply to almost all secular activities and gatherings,” he said, describing the ticketing process GraceLife underwent as “quick and respectful.”
It should be noted the facility owned by GraceLife was closed and barricaded by government officials in early April, resulting in the congregation meeting at an undisclosed location for worship services.
During the Monday hearing, the judge expressed frustration over Coates’ skepticism about pandemic-related restrictions, saying he has argued the mandates have been “part of an agenda to transform our nation.”
Nevertheless, Coates’ trial is slated to continue with discussions over the constitutionality of public health orders that placed attendance caps on worship services.
Lawyers are scheduled to convene June 30 to set a date for the next hearing.