Following his March 22 release from jail for violating public health orders, Canadian Pastor James Coates returned to the pulpit yesterday at GraceLife Church near Edmonton, Alberta. Coates, who spent 35 days in jail and was charged $1,500 for breaching bail, goes on trial in May for violating COVID-19 restrictions limiting the size of in-person gatherings.
According to news reports, GraceLife’s parking lot and pews were full on Sunday, and police were present but didn’t intervene. Coates’ ongoing stand against government-imposed worship restrictions have led to mixed reactions with some people praising the pastor’s actions and others condemning them.
Supporters Call Pastor James Coates Courageous
Since February, a GoFundMe campaign to pay Coates’ legal fees has raised more than $45,000. John Klassen, who says he’s not affiliated with GraceLife or its pastor, established the fund. “Coates has been a rare and refreshing voice of courage in these unprecedent[ed] times,” writes Klassen. “He has stood on the word of God faithfully, courageously, and uncompromisingly as a man of God when all around him men falter and fail.”
Pastor Coates has denied trying to be “a political revolutionary,” saying it’s “simply…my obedience to Christ that has put me at odds with the law.”
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), which represents Coates, maintains that no GraceLife congregants have contracted COVID-19. JCCF president John Carpay says, “We look forward to appearing in court in May and demanding the government provide evidence that public health restrictions that violate the freedoms of religion, peaceful assembly, expression, and association are scientific and are justifiable in a free and democratic country”
Erin Coates, the pastor’s wife, says her husband has shepherded his flock “wisely” during the pandemic, “putting many precautions in place” at the church. During an interview while her husband was in jail, she said faith leaders will have to “stand before the Lord and give an account on Judgment Day for the souls that have been entrusted to them.”
Critics Say Pastor James Coates Is Risking Lives
A group of Alberta faith leaders has been expressing disagreement with Coates and urging willing compliance with local health regulations. The Rev. Scott Sharman told a local newspaper, “People’s religious freedoms have been spoken to and protected, but also the faiths that are being protected [must] sometimes put their talk of rights aside when it’s to the benefits of others.”
Jeffrey Champion, the provincial judge who set Coates’ release terms, said violating health orders “is an issue when someone makes a decision that can affect the health and lives of thousands of people.” Champion told Coates, “The shepherd ought to protect his flock… You don’t get to make that decision for everyone else.”
After news broke of yesterday’s in-person service at GraceLife, Alberta politician Rachel Notley tweeted that the church should be shut down. “Enough is enough,” she writes. “So many other congregations across the province have made sacrifices and adapted their services to comply with public health orders. The people attending this church are not above anyone else. Their refusal to follow the rules puts others at risk.”