Canada News

Canadian Pastor Jailed For Holding Church Services

"I read to my children the work the Lord is doing in people through James so they can see the sacrifice of their father is not in vain."

A pastor in Alberta, Canada has been jailed for conducting worship services in defiance of state-enforced restrictions which deemed church a non-essential practice.

Pastor James Coates of Grace Life Church near Edmonton handed himself in at the request of police after holding an in-person church service on February 14 in violation of the state’s dystopian “new normal.”

According to reports, Pastor Coates has been charged under the Public Health Act for repeatedly violating public health orders, including being over capacity and failing to adhere to physical distancing requirements.

Police had been working with the Alberta Health Services (AHS) to investigate the church after the gathering was reported for breach of state health orders.

According to a press release from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, AHS officials began showing up in November to inspect the church weekly.

“Each Sunday morning–during the worship service–an AHS inspector, often accompanied by law enforcement, demanded entry to the building, went into the sanctuary, and recorded the number of people present and whether they were masked and distanced,” a statement from the Justice Centre claims.

“This occurred almost every Sunday for three months, with no regard to how disturbing the presence of an AHS inspector and law enforcement is to congregants of Grace Life.

“The congregants of Grace Life regard the weekly invasion of AHS inspectors to be a potential criminal offense, pursuant to section 176(2) of the Criminal Code of Canada, which prohibits the interrupting or disturbing of a religious worship service.”

The church had initially complied with the government’s restrictions by suspending in-person worship gatherings while the severity of the virus was still unknown.

However, Grace Life re-opened their church doors in June 2020 “when it became clear that the Government’s initial dire predictions had been based on modelling that has now proven to be inaccurate.”

The church was first cited in December, and Pastor Coates ordered to pay $1,200 in fines, after hosting a worship service at more than 15 per cent capacity.

An AHS inspector subsequently issued an order against Grace Life church and publicly published it online. In January, AHS filed a court application to enforce the December order and to acquire the power to jail Pastor Coates if he continued to conduct church services. The Court of Queen’s Bench granted AHS’ application and ordered Grace Life to comply with the December Order.

A week later, AHS issued a Closure Order, demanding “the owner IMMEDIATELY CLOSE the above-noted premises to public access, including congregants, members or attendees.”

However, the church refused to accept the Alberta Government’s dystopian “new normal” and continued holding church services in accordance with their conviction, attorney James Kitchen said in a statement.

“Their first loyalty is to obey their God, not government,” Kitchen said. “They are committed to gathering, as they always have, for in-person worship services. They will challenge this excessive and unlawful government oppression rather than turn their back on their beliefs. They also believe they are lawfully exercising their Charter-protected freedoms and that the Government’s restrictions are not justifiable.”

According to the Justice Centre, Grace Life has almost 400 congregants, and not one has been lost to the virus. However, one of their members did die in the first week of February because he was unable to receive cancer treatment due to the Government’s restrictions.

As Grace Life gathered again on Sunday, February 14, and AHS inspector notified Pastor Coates that authorities planned to arrest him on the following Tuesday and bring him before a Justice of the Peace, forcing the court to decide if he will be imprisoned.

Attorney Kitchen said Pastor Coates is “prepared to incur the consequences, up to and including imprisonment, to continue to do what he believes is the right thing to do for his people.”

At the request of RCMP, Pastor Coates handed himself in to authorities and is being held in jail unless he commits to cease holding church services, Liberty Coalition Canada said in a tweet.

Tom Ascol, President of Founders Ministries, who has been in contact with Pastor Coates family said the authorities will not release him from jail and that “the conditions of his release are that he would not pastor anymore.”

In a number of posts on Facebook, Pastor Coates’ wife Erin said:

“James has been in isolation in a cell block since yesterday morning. His hearing didn’t go very well. The crown went for the jugular. The JP say he didn’t want to detain him, he wasn’t interested in making a martyr of him. He could walk if he just sets aside his God-given pastoral duties but he can’t do that. He has a hearing today to set a court date for his charges. It’s very possible that they will remand him until his court case. The Crown has called him a danger to the health and safety of Albertans. May God have mercy on our nation! I read to my children the work the Lord is doing in people through James so they can see the sacrifice of their father is not in vain. My prayer is that men will stand! They can’t see that if they shut us down on this issue they will shut us down on any issue they deem to be ‘a danger to the health and safety of Albertans.”

Mrs Coates went on to say:

“My heart is broken. They tried him in secret. The officers lied to us and told us he wasn’t there. They tried to hide him and sneak him out the back door. In the providence of God one of our men was there. The officer only allowed him to tell him that he loved him and were here with him. They pulled him away. They have remanded him as our lawyer seeks the appeal. The conditions of his release are that he would not pastor anymore. I cannot visit him.”

Earlier this month, Pastor Coates was interviewed on Cross Politic, where he explained his reasons for continuing to conduct church services, despite government-imposed restrictions.

UPDATE: Erin Coates released the following statement on Thursday:

Saints, I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for the outpouring of love. I have been flooded with messages and it pains me that I cannot respond to them all. I want to know each one of you and how our dear Lord has worked in your life. Thank you for your kindness in our darkest hour. My heart is shattered yet rejoicing – we knew this could be cost[ly] and I would do it a thousand times over for our King and the hearts entrusted to us at GLC. Her health and progress in the gospel is our top priority.

Yesterday, was the hardest day of my life. I want to address the ‘secret’ part of my comment from yesterday; our lawyer was zoomed in with James in trail yesterday – the courthouse and the officers were the ones who would not tell us where he was. The inhumanity of my husband in chains, while I could not find or get to him, broke me. To think he stood alone when we were trying to get to him was almost too much for me until I remembered the One who loves him more than I ever could was standing with him.

I must trust James’ life to Him, He is only good to us. I was able to speak with James yesterday, again trying to get to him but they wouldn’t let us see each other. He is in quarantine in a medium-security. I cannot visit because of virus restrictions. He will be isolated for two weeks (or Lord willing his released) I do not know when I will speak to him next.

In God’s goodness he has his Bible, the sweetest treasure he knows he has been able to carry with him. You all keep asking what can you do? The Lord has so faithfully provided for our physical needs. Our lawyer is pro bono so if you desire to send a donation please consider the JCCF.

What is something tangible you can do? Open your churches. Worship Christ. Practice the one another’s, sing your hearts out, let your pastor see your eyes as he preaches the Word of God to you. Don’t underestimate this task in your life. Obey Christ with all your have. Proclaim His excellencies through his. Use this as conversations for those who do not know Christ and let the Spirit do a work we have never seen. Please keep praying for us. My children are broken yet resolved. Pray for James, isolation can break the strongest of men.