Hundreds Protest Over Arrest of Pastor Who Defied COVID-19 Lockdown Orders

February 22, 2021 Updated: February 24, 2021

Hundreds of protesters rallied outside the Edmonton Remand Centre on Feb. 20 to show their support for pastor James Coates, who remained in custody after being charged with breaking Alberta’s COVID-19 rules and refusing to comply with his conditions of release not to hold services.

In a Facebook post, the protestors urged people to join them in “standing for religious and charter freedoms.”

GraceLife church in Edmonton had been fined $1,200 in December 2020 when it hosted more people than the 15 percent limit mandated by Alberta Health Services for faith-based services. AHS issued a closure order in January, but Coates, the church’s pastor, continued holding services, and on Feb. 7, the RCMP told him he was under arrest. Although the arrest wasn’t carried out that day, on Feb. 14 the RCMP notified him of their plan to arrest him in two days, and Coates turned himself in on Feb. 16. Coates was charged with two counts of contravention of the Public Health Act.

At the protest outside the jail over the weekend, Erin Coates, Coates’s wife, said her husband is “fighting for freedom but more, he’s fighting for the Lordship of Christ over his church.”

Pastor Henry Hildebrandt of the Church of God in Ontario also spoke at the rally, saying, “the very foundation of our country is shaking right now.” He added, “If in the communist country of Cuba, churches are open and we are jailing our pastors, what is happening to us?”

Another pastor, in support of Coates, opened his church on Feb. 21, holding a full service.

Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, whose church has previously broken the provincial COVID-19 rules, told Global News that he is prepared to face the legal consequences for his actions.

“James [Coates] is a good friend of mine and it’s sad what’s happened to him,” Stephens said. “I’m prepared if that’s the same consequence for myself. I know other pastors feel the same way, that want to stand with him and support him and our brothers and sisters at GraceLife Church.”

“We understand the dangers of COVID-19 but we also understand the dangers of policies that seek to reduce the spread of the virus,” Stephens said in a statement on Feb. 21.

“We are not against all rules and health measures. However, we cannot comply with rules that make what we essentially do as a church impossible,” he continued. “And to be clear, it is the Jesus Christ, not civil government, that defines what is essential for the gathered church.”

The Edmonton Interfaith Centre, meanwhile, urged “Albertans to attend closely to the recommendations and directives of public health officers and government officials” in a letter (pdf) signed by over 25 faith leaders.

“This is a time where we must make an even more intentional effort to preserve social cohesion and concern for the common good,” the letter states.

Coates is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 24.

Andrew Chen and The Canadian Press contributed to this article.