Lawyer for GraceLife pastor argues ticket came in response to sermon critical of government, health officials

A lawyer representing the Edmonton-area pastor charged with breaching COVID-19 restrictions argued officials chose to ticket him only after he gave a sermon critical of government and health authorities.

On Tuesday, provincial court Judge Robert Shaigec heard constitutional arguments in the case of GraceLife Church pastor James Coates[3], who is charged with breaching the Public Health Act by holding worship services without COVID capacity restrictions at his Parkland County church.

Coates was ticketed on Dec. 20, 2020, and later spent 35 days in jail for refusing to sign a legal undertaking requiring him to abide by public health rules.

The first stage of the trial[4] concluded Tuesday and will resume in June.

James Kitchen, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, argued that in addition to infringing on Coates’ religious liberties, the COVID restrictions impact his right to freedom of expression.

Advertisement

Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

“The best explanation for why that ticket was issued that particular Sunday … is because it was meant to impose a chilling effect on pastor Coates,” he said.

Coates admitted that he and his congregation ignored 15 per cent capacity limits on worship services introduced in December. However, he argues those restrictions and his subsequent arrest violate seven separate sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Kitchen said GraceLife had been disobeying the restrictions when health and RCMP officials inspected the premise on previous Sundays. However, “that ticket wasn’t issued until pastor Coates preached a sermon critical of the government.”

He noted on that day, a health inspector and RCMP attended the church before the sermon, but only returned to issue the ticket after Coates gave his sermon, which was live-streamed online.

Pastor James Coates, carrying a mask, exits the Edmonton Remand Centre with a group of supporters after being released from the facility late Monday, March 22, 2021.
Pastor James Coates, carrying a mask, exits the Edmonton Remand Centre with a group of supporters after being released from the facility late Monday, March 22, 2021. Photo by Ed Kaiser /Postmedia

“It was clear the 15 per cent was exceeded long before he preached (that sermon),” Kitchen said. “Why issue the ticket after?”

Kitchen has declined[5] to wear a face mask during the proceedings, claiming a medical exemption.

The public health prosecutor handling the case argued there was “no evidence … at all” that the ticket was in retaliation for Coates’ Dec. 20 sermon (for security reasons, the prosecutor was granted permission to appear without using her name).

She said this week’s trial focuses narrowly on whether that specific ticket infringed on Coates’ rights. She argued there is no evidence the authorities who issued the ticket interrupted services or otherwise interfered with Coates’ ability to practice his faith.

Advertisement

Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

She noted the church previously conducted services by livestream, and that they were able to hold multiple services in compliance with COVID measures — including with singing.

“There are ways in which they can conduct all of these freedoms,” she said. “They chose not to.”

She also argued Coates’ imprisonment did not breach Section 7 of the Charter. “The state had nothing to do with Mr. Coates deciding not to sign the release order and to stay in custody.”

At this stage of the trial, Shaigec must determine whether any of Coates’ rights were violated. If Shaigec finds Coates’ Section 7 rights were violated specifically, he must determine what if any remedy Coates is entitled to receive.

If he believes Coates other rights were infringed upon, the Crown will then have to prove the violations were justified under Section 1 of the Charter.

Shaigec is expected to give his decision on those issues June 7 in Stony Plain provincial court.

jwakefield@postmedia.com[6]

twitter.com/jonnywakefield[7]

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines[8] for more information and details on how to adjust your email[9] settings.

References

  1. ^ Local News (edmontonjournal.com)
  2. ^ (edmontonjournal.com)
  3. ^ GraceLife Church pastor James Coates (edmontonjournal.com)
  4. ^ trial (edmontonjournal.com)
  5. ^ declined (edmontonjournal.com)
  6. ^ jwakefield@postmedia.com (edmontonjournal.com)
  7. ^ twitter.com/jonnywakefield (twitter.com)
  8. ^ Community Guidelines (pages.postmedia.com)
  9. ^ email (pages.postmedia.com)