Trial of Alberta pastor accused of flouting COVID-19 health measures to resume June 7

After two days of arguments, the trial for an Alberta pastor accused of leading church services in violation of public-health orders will resume next month. 

Judge Robert Shaigec adjourned proceeding until June 7 in Stony Plain provincial court while he considers a number of legal arguments. 

Lawyers for GraceLife Pastor James Coates, 41, continued their arguments this morning in Edmonton provincial court.

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

"We don't need a psychologist to tell us that in-person communication is more effective and that humans need it, want it, and derive more benefit from it," James Kitchen told the court.

Kitchen also accused the RCMP of targeting Coates, saying Mounties issued him a ticket on Dec. 20, 2020 as a way of imposing "a chilling effect" on the church.

"The purpose of the December 20th ticket was to censor, was to penalize," Kitchen argued. "Why? Because that particular morning he preached a sermon critical of government."

"It was to send a message that you better stop criticizing the government."

A YouTube video of the sermon shows Coates questioning the authority of the premier and the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. 

"Do you realize that there are plagues in the Old Testament that got unleashed on Israel in a single day that killed thousands? And we're concerned about the flu essentially?" 

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.

'THEY CHOSE NOT TO'

The Crown prosecutor, who had earlier requested and was granted anonymity due to security councers, said there was no actual evidence the content of that sermon resulted in the ticket and that the church could have easily held its services online.

"He was still able to practise all of those broad, protected charter rights," she told court. "He was able to hold multiple services. He was still able to go online."

"There's ways in which they can conduct all of these freedoms but they chose not to."

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is expected to announce a number of new, stronger public health measures later Tuesday night.

To date, 2,090 Albertans have died due to COVID-19 and more than 8,000 have been hospitalized.

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

The province has had the highest per capita active case count among all Canadian provinces for several months now. 

COATES TESTIFIES

Coates himself testified on the first day of his trial Monday where he told the court the COVID-19 pandemic had been blown out of proportion.

"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 real threat is AHS and its public health orders."

Coates invoked a number of conspiracy theories around COVID-19 testing and "the Great Reset" as well as Kenney's May 2020 characterization of COVID-19 as an "influenza" as justification for ignoring public health rules.

"The government was capitalizing on the crisis to usher in an agenda that would transform the society as we know it," he said.

He also made multiple complaints about the difficulty of speaking with a mask on. A member of his legal team, James Kitchen, was the only one in court Monday not to wear a mask, claiming he had a medical exemption.

CHURCH CLOSED DOWN

On the first day of the trial on Monday, court heard from an Alberta Health Services inspector who visited the church several times.

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.

Hanrahan said she made several recommendations to the church's pastor about what they could do to reduce the spread of COVID-19 -- such as signage on the door to remind people about physical distancing, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

She also recommended the church have separate entrance and exit lanes for congregants passing through its double doors.

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.

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

With files from the Canadian Press