Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church filed a charter application, a pre-trial motion that individuals make when seeking remedy for violations of Charter rights, regarding a Dec. 20, 2020, ticket he received for holding church services that the Alberta government said violated COVID-19 restrictions.
Provincial Court of Alberta Judge Robert Shaigec ruled on Monday that the “enforcement” of law was not a violation of Coates’s religious freedom.
Following the ruling, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a non-profit legal organization representing Coates, issued a statement saying that it’s “disappointed.”
“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires governments to justify demonstrably—with compelling evidence—any law, policy or health order that violates any of our fundamental freedoms to move, travel, associate, worship, assemble, and express ourselves,” Justice Centre President John Carpay said.
“This very basic constitutional requirement has been ignored completely by governments at every level in the past 14 months. Unfortunately, the courts have permitted the government to delay facing accountability in regard to Charter violations,” he said.
Shaigec stated in his ruling that “freedom of religion is subject to such limitations to protect public health and safety,” and ruled that Coates’s Charter rights had to be “reasonably threatened in more than an insubstantial way and only after competing interests are weighed,” according to the Justice Centre.
“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 Carpay.
“The judge thought the restrictions were reasonable, which is not the proper legal test at this stage. Whether restrictions are reasonable should only be considered later, after the government has finally produced medical and scientific evidence to try to justify its restrictions on Charter freedoms,” he added.
Coates was charged with violating the Public Health Act for continuing to hold church services months after lockdown restrictions were put in place. Coates had refused to sign an agreement to halt church services to his congregation, and therefore spent 35 days in jail before he was released on March 22.
The Provincial Court in Edmonton adjourned a portion of Coates’s trial that involves his challenge to the public health orders issued by Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, which the Justice Centre said was because government lawyers are not yet prepared to present medical or scientific evidence in support of the public health orders.
Shaigec stated that while Coates had spent over a month in jail because his bail conditions required him to violate his religious beliefs, his right to liberty was not violated. According to the Justice Centre, Shaigec also stated that Coates could have been released on a “single condition he comply with the law,” referring to Hinshaw’s public health orders.
The Justice Centre said the court will likely hear Coates’s Charter challenge to the constitutionality of Alberta’s lockdown measures in the fall, but the specific date remains unclear.