Judge dismisses GraceLife pastor's charter challenge of COVID-19 public health measures

An Alberta Provincial Court Judge has dismissed a Charter challenge put forth by a Parkland County pastor accused of flouting COVID-19 public health restrictions.

Judge Robert Shaigec ruled on Monday that James Coates' charter rights were not violated when he was ticketed at GraceLife Church on Dec. 20, 2020.

"The argument that James Coates was forced to either forsake his conscience or secure his liberty has been answered," Shaigec said, reading from his ruling.

"Religious freedoms are subject to the rule of law."

Coates, 41, is charged with one count of violating Alberta's Public Health Act after continuing to lead services at GraceLife Church that ignored public health orders.

His lawyers had argued the province's public health rules restricting attendance at venues, including churches, violated charter rights around freedoms of gathering, expression and religion. 

They also asserted GraceLife had been singled out for enforcement while noting Coates had spent 35 days in jail after a previous ticket.

But Shaigec rejected those arguments, noting it was public complaints that drove inspectors to the church, and also that public health restrictions applied across many institutions.

"Similar restrictions apply to almost all secular activities and gatherings," Shaigec said, later describing the ticketing process was "quick and respectful."

He also pointed out Coates was ordered to be released from custody in February but refused to sign a bail order forbidding him from leading services again.

"He chose to remain in jail," Shaigec said. "It was Mr. Coates' choice to make."

The judge also noted Coates' repeated skepticism of the pandemic and public health measures after he testified it was "not a real pandemic," that COVID-19 testing is "not credible" and that COVID-19 was "part of an agenda to transform our nation."

"Public health laws impose duties on owners and operators. Coates as an operator ... was required by law to implement COVID-19 measures."

Coates' lawyer says he is considering an appeal. 

"“It’s obvious that government restrictions on people’s freedom to worship, assemble and associate are violated by health orders that prevent normal, regular church services from taking place," said John Carpay.

Coates' trial is still slated to continue, including discussions on the constitutionality of public health orders limiting attendance at places of worship. 

Lawyers will meet June 30 to set a date for the trial to resume.

The church as an organization is also facing a separate charge under the Public Health Act. Its lawyers are scheduled to appear in Stony Plain provincial court again on Wednesday.

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

To date, 2,246 Albertans have died due to COVID-19 and more than 9,400 have been hospitalized.