A pro-family organization is raising awareness about a Canadian pastor who remains behind bars for refusing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions that severely limit church attendance.
James Coates, who leads a congregation in Edmonton, Alberta, turned himself in to police last month after refusing to comply with restrictions at GraceLife Church that included limiting Sunday morning attendance to 15% capacity.
Coates walked into a police station Feb. 16 after law enforcement authorities and Alberta Health Services officials attended a church service and observed the pastor was not complying with court-ordered conditions imposed on him.
During a court hearing, the pastor was told he would be released if he agreed to the restrictions but he refused and remains in a jail cell three weeks later.
Alberta, a Canadian province, has a population estimated at 4.3 million where only 1,900 virus-related deaths have been recorded to date. Edmonton has a population of approximately 1.4 million.
According to news reports, Coates and GraceLife are accused of violating the Public Health Act.
The church was first cited for exceeding the 15% limit in December, when Coates was fined $1,200, and a bench order was issued in January when the church refused to back down.
Coates is charged with two counts of contravention of the Public Health Act and for failing to comply with the earlier condition of his release.
AFA alarmed by 'religious hostility'
Conservative activist Brian Rushfeldt, an Alberta resident, tells One News Now the province has imposed draconian restrictions on its own citizens, including its church congregations.
"Everybody had to have a mask. The singers had to have masks," he says of the health requirements. "The pastor, I think, was restricted to no contact with any parishoner."
Canadians' legal rights are protected by the Charter of Rights, which includes the freedom to associate and to meet together, and Alberta's authorities are violating the Charter, Rushfeldt warns.
Ed Vitagliano of the Mississippi-based American Family Association says the position of AFA is that Alberta’s government is infringing on a pastor’s rights and, worse, is infringing on religious liberty itself.
“This is kind of part and parcel with what we're seeing even in different locations, different states, different communities in this country,” he says, “where the government officials are apparently giving vent to their religious hostility and using the pandemic as an excuse to shut down churches."
From congregations in Mississippi to California, One News Now has reported over the past year about churches fighting authorities to keep their doors open during the pandemic, but the jailing of a church pastor angered AFA and its leaders.
“In true Gestapo form,” reads a recent “Action Alert” from the ministry, “government officials attended one of the church's services in February and then charged the pastor with violating an order to shut down the church by the end of January.”
The public is encouraged by the “Action Alert” to add their name to a list of people telling Coates “I stand with you” and promising to pray for him.
Attorney: My client obeying God
An attorney for the pastor told CTV News that his client must obey God rather than Alberta’s authorities.
“And normally, obeying Jesus and obeying the government go right in hand,” attorney James Kitchen said. “The government’s forcing [Coates] into a position where he has to choose between disobeying God and obeying government, or obeying God and disobeying government.”
In a statement released last month, the GraceLife congregation said it does not believe its violations are “perpetuating” the virus in the community but, taking a completely opposite view, the church’s defiance means “the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections.”