Judge set to rule on GraceLife pastor’s charter challenge as trial continues

EDMONTON — An Alberta Provincial Court Judge is set to rule on a Charter challenge put forth by a Parkland County pastor accused of flouting COVID-19 public health restrictions.

James 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 trial began last month and continues this morning in Stony Plain provincial court. 

Judge Robert Robert Shaigec is set to rule Monday morning on questions around if Coates’ charter rights were violated, and if so, if those those violations were justified under the charter’s “reasonable limits” clause.

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 on Monday.

CHARTER CHALLENGE

Over the first two days of the trial, lawyers for Coates 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 argued 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 concerns, 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.”

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

The province is poised to enter Stage 2 of its reopening plan this week which will see restrictions loosened around gathering sizes, indoor dining, and other previously closed venues including casinos, museums and libraries.

COATES TESTIFIES

Coates has said 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 justified ignoring public health rules through a number of conspiracy theories around COVID-19 testing and “the Great Reset,” as well as Premier Jason Kenney’s May 2020 characterization of COVID-19 as an “influenza.”

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

CHURCH CLOSED DOWN

On the first day of the trial 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.

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