Alberta pastor defiant, refers to 'so-called' pandemic on first day of trial for violating public health orders

An Alberta pastor accused of repeatedly flouting Alberta's COVID-19 public health restrictions was defiant on the first day of his trial on Monday, claiming both the health risk of COVID-19 and the government response to the pandemic were exaggerated. 

James Coates appeared in Edmonton provincial court charged with one count of violating the Public Health Act while leading services at GraceLife church in Parkland County. 

Coates told the court that he initially followed public health restrictions but became convinced that COVID-19 was overblown and that public health measures went too far after researching what he termed, "real facts." 

"I don't believe that COVID-19 poses a serious health risk to our people," he told the court, later referring to COVID-19 as a "so-called pandemic."

"The government was capitalizing on the crisis to usher in an agenda that would transform the society as we know it," he said. "The real threat is AHS and its public health orders."

He cited how Alberta Premier Jason Kenney referred to COVID-19 as "an influenza" in the legislature as justification for his opposition to public health rules.

"We determined that complying with AHS meant noncompliance with God so we decided, 'OK, well, who would you rather be (in) noncompliance with? God, or AHS?' And I think the choice is pretty simple."

Coates challenged those health restrictions as unnecessary, answering "of course not" when asked if he wore a mask while giving a sermon. 

"You're unable to connect with the people you're talking to," he said of masks. 

Coates also spoke in court about what he termed "relentless" harassment from media, AHS and the RCMP. 

"They're not policing crimes," he said of the Mounties. "They're policing health orders. That's disgraceful." 

His lawyers admit that he broke health restrictions, but are arguing that the province's pandemic health measures are unconstitutional and intrude on freedom of worship.

To date, 2,086 Albertans have died due to COVID-19 and nearly 8,000 have been hospitalized.

Last week, the province set new pandemic highs for daily new cases, net active cases, number of intensive care unit patients and test positivity.

INSPECTOR SAW MULTIPLE PUBLIC HEALTH VIOLATIONS

On Monday, the court also heard from an Alberta Health Services inspector who visited the church on several occassions. 

Janine Hanrahan told the court she first inspected the church in July 2020 following multiple complaints by the public to AHS.

She testified to observing a lack of physical distancing and mask-wearing at several inspections, including a church band and choir singing.

Hanrahan said during one inspection, she heard the pastor telling an RCMP officer that Alberta's chief medical officer was a dictator and Premier Jason Kenney was hiding behind her.

She testified that when she inspected the church last December she was accompanied by two Mounties for her protection.

CHURCH CLOSED DOWN BY AHS

AHS eventually closed and fenced off the church in mid-April, sparking protests and driving Coates and his church to hold services in a secret location before posting a video recording online.

Coates was released on March 22 after being jailed for more than a month after refusing to abide by a bail condition to not to hold church services that violated rules over gathering and masking.

One of his lawyers, James Kitchen, was the only one in the courtroom not to wear a mask on Monday, claiming a medical exemption and offering a note from his doctor as proof.

Coates will continue his testimony Tuesday.

The trial is scheduled to continue through at least Wednesday.

With files from the Canadian Press