Pastor spent 5 weeks in jail for holding church services

R v. James Coates

Pastor spent 5 weeks in jail for holding church services

R v. James Coates

When the Alberta government and Alberta Health Services charged Pastor James Coates and GraceLife Church in Edmonton with violating public health orders because the peaceful pastor held “normal” church services, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms stepped in to fund Pastor Coates’ legal defence team. President and founder of the Justice Centre, John Carpay, took an active role in publicly defending Pastor Coates and his congregation’s right to practice their religion.

Pastor Coates’ resistance to the public health orders only began after complying for many months with the very restrictive lockdowns. Pastor Coates began to notice irrational inconsistencies in the public health orders that allowed some Albertans, including Premier Kenney, to dine out with friends, without masks, and shoppers to crowd into big box stores, all the while strictly limiting Sunday church meetings. Pastor Coates would no longer comply with what he saw as unjust and irrational public health orders.

From November 2020 to February 2021, Pastor James Coates and his congregation were harassed by RCMP officers on a weekly basis. During that time, the Church elders had explained to these unwelcome bureaucrats that they were considered “uninvited” and that their arrival at GraceLife every Sunday, taking notes and photos of the congregants and interrupting a church service, was a breach of section 176 (1) of the Criminal Code.

On February 14, 2021, Pastor Coates held a Sunday worship service at GraceLife Church and was arrested in his office on February 15, 2021. When he refused to sign an undertaking promising that he would obey the Public Health Orders, Pastor Coates was taken from his wife and children and jailed on February 16, 2021 at the Edmonton Remand Centre for a provincial infraction that is not punishable by jail time.

On February 17, 2021, Justice Centre president, John Carpay, sent a letter to Premier Jason Kenney and copied Dr. Deena Hinshaw, stating that Dr. Hinshaw had turned Alberta into a police state and challenged the Premier to do his duty and defend the Charter rights of Pastor Coates. Counsel for Pastor Coates also filed an appeal to have Pastor Coates released before his trial on May 3-5, 2021.

At a March 4, 2021 court hearing for the release of Pastor Coates, the Alberta Government argued that Pastor Coates should remain in jail for another eight weeks pending his trial in May, 2021. At the same time, Crown prosecutor Karen Thorsrud, presented no evidence that full churches pose any threat to public health.

On March 17, 2021, after the Crown prosecutor agreed that Pastor Coates would be released without conditions and withdrew all but one Public Health charge, the legal team working with the Justice Centre continued to defend Pastor Coates on one remaining charge of violating an Order of the Chief Medical Officer of Health by challenging the constitutionality of the public health order that he is charged with violating.

Leighton Grey, lead counsel for Pastor Coates, filed the Notice of Intention to Raise Constitutional on March 12, 2021, setting out how each of Pastor Coates’ Charter rights was violated and requesting orders and remedies from the Court.

Pastor Coates spent one month and six days in jail before his release on March 22, 2021 – for following his conscience and refusing to sign the undertaking (legal agreement) to stop pastoring his church according to his religious convictions.

All along, the Alberta government and Alberta Health Services provided no evidence that backed up why their public health orders were necessary. They decreed that lockdowns and masking were necessary and expected that Albertans should just accept it.

On April 7, 2021, the GraceLife Church building was seized and barricaded by the RCMP for over three weeks, preventing the congregants from exercising their Charter freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and worship. The congregants had to gather for worship at secret locations for three Sundays.

Pastor Coates’ trial was set for May 3, 2021, but the Crown prosecutor wanted the trial date moved to July 2021 so they could assemble medical and scientific evidence. Lawyers for Pastor Coates questioned how Public Health and the Alberta government had enough evidence to shut down hundreds of small businesses, close restaurants, cancel hundreds of necessary surgeries and medical procedures, and force Albertans into a third lockdown, but they were not ready to present this data and evidence in court that would support these actions.

John Carpay weighed in that the “Alberta government based their unconstitutional lockdowns on unscientific, arbitrary health orders from an unelected and politically appointed doctor, whose Orders are not scrutinized by elected Members of the Legislative Assembly.”

By the trial date of May 3, 2021, the Alberta government had almost fourteen months to assemble proper medical and scientific evidence to justify lockdowns and the resulting violations of the fundamental Charter freedoms. But still they didn’t!

Mr. Carpay further noted, ”The government cannot or will not put that evidence before the courts. But, somehow, the Alberta government would have us believe that it has enough medical and scientific evidence to shut down hundreds of small businesses, pushing many of them into bankruptcy, and to cancel over 20,000 medically necessary surgeries, and to force Albertans into a third lockdown as of yesterday, with its resulting harms of unemployment, poverty and despair,”

Although the Court ruled that the trial would proceed on May 3, 2023, the Court granted the Alberta government’s request that Pastor Coates legal team would not be permitted to challenge the constitutional validity of Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s orders at trial. The Alberta government was off the hook, they were not required to produce scientific evidence in support of Dr. Hinshaw’s orders. It was agreed that the constitutional challenge would occur at a later date.

At the June 7, 2021 hearing, Judge Robert Shaigec rejected Pastor Coates’ arguments that the Public Health Act Ticket he received on December 20, 2020, for holding church services as normal, violated multiple Charter rights.

Judge Shaigec also ruled that even though Pastor Coates spent 35 days in jail because his release condition required him to violate his conscience and religious beliefs, his right to liberty was not violated, stating he could have been released on “a single condition he comply with the law”, referring to public health orders.

Although the judge deemed that the restrictions were reasonable, John Carpay stated, “the conclusion of reasonableness should only be considered later, after the government has finally produced medical and scientific evidence to try to justify its restrictions on Charter freedoms.”

On July 31, 2023 the Court of King’s Bench of Albert released the decision in the Ingram v. Alberta case, invalidating the public health orders of Dr. Deena Hinshaw. The court struck down these lockdown measures because they were effectively issued by Cabinet rather than by the CMOH. Dr. Hinshaw testified at trial that politicians were the final decision-making authority, and that she merely provided advice and recommendations.

With these health orders having been invalidated, it is expected that Crown prosecutors will need to withdraw charges against Ty Northcott/ Northcott Rodeo Inc.Pastor James Coates of Grace Life Church of Edmonton, Pastor Tim Stephens’ church, Fairview Baptist Church, and others.

The Justice Centre expects an official decision in the case of Pastor James Coates on August 30, 2023.

Canadians witnessed how quickly our free nation was turned into a totalitarian police state with lockdowns, the violation of one’s freedom of religion, travel bans and vaccine passports. We are indebted to Canadians like Pastor Coates and others who bravely took the government to court to insist that governments do not have the right to trample on our rights.


Updated August 30, 2023:

Pastor James Coates and GraceLife Church have officially been acquitted of all charges. This follows the consequential Ingram v. Alberta decision, in which Justice Barbara Romaine of the Alberta Court of King’s Bench determined that the Covid health restrictions imposed by the Government of Alberta were invalid.

Pastor Coates and the congregation of GraceLife church had been gathering for worship services throughout 2020 and 2021, exercising their Charter freedoms of religion, conscience, association and peaceful assembly. On February 15, 2021, after holding a church service the previous day, Pastor Coates was arrested by officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for violating gathering restrictions. When he refused to sign an undertaking promising that he would obey Public Health Orders which unjustifiably violated his Charter freedoms, Pastor Coates was jailed in the Edmonton Remand Centre on February 16, 2021. Counsel for Pastor Coates filed an appeal to have him released before his trial, which had been set for May 3-5, 2021.

On March 22, 2021, after spending 35 days in jail, Pastor Coates was released from jail. At a June 7, 2021 hearing, Judge Robert Shaigec stated that Pastor Coates’ right to liberty had not been violated by his 35-day jailing since he could have complied with the undertaking and could have agreed to observe the Public Health Orders.

On July 31, 2023, the Alberta Court of King’s Bench released a consequential decision in Ingram v. Alberta: the Public Health Orders that Pastor Coates and GraceLife church had violated were found to be ultra vires the Public Health Act and were, therefore, invalid. The Act requires that all decisions with respect to public health orders must be made by the Chief Medical Officer of Health and not by the Alberta Cabinet. In her concluding remarks, Justice Barbara Romaine stated, “While involvement of elected officials in these important decisions may be desirable and even necessary, this involvement should have been structured in such a way as to mitigate the risk of political priorities interfering with the informed and well-qualified judgment of the [Chief Medical Officer of Health], as provided in the Public Health Act, without ignoring the underlying public interest.” (emphasis added)

As a consequence of this decision, all charges against Pastor Coates and GraceLife Church have been dismissed by the Crown, and the Crown will not be seeking a further jail sentence for Pastor Coates. Further, it is expected that the Alberta Crown will withdraw all Covid-related tickets and may reimburse all fines for violations of Covid-related public health orders paid by Albertans.

Justice Centre President John Carpay stated, “It has been, and remains, a great honour to assist and stand with courageous Albertans like Pastor James Coates, Sheila Annette Lewis, Pastor Tim Stephens, Ty Northcott, and so many other courageous Canadians who exercised their Charter freedoms when faced with unjust and unscientific lockdown measures.”

Lawyer Leighton Grey stated, “Pastor James Coates and GraceLife Church endured a great deal of vilification and abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was meted out by the media, the Kenney government, Alberta Health Services, the RCMP, many Albertans, and even the Alberta Courts. One Judge went so far as to accuse Pastor Coates of endangering the lives of many Albertans, without there being any evidence before the Court to substantiate that accusation. That same Judge even threatened to give Coates even more jail time than the 35 days he had already served. Another Judge told Pastor Coates that, despite having been jailed, his Charter right to liberty had somehow not been violated. In the end, all of the Covid lockdown restrictions were declared illegal. So, this is a day of justice for Pastor Coates and indeed for every Albertan who continues to support the Supremacy of God and the Rule of Law.”

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