A fundraising campaign to support the legal fees of Pastor James Coates, who was jailed and charged for allegedly violating Alberta’s COVID-19 rules, has exceeded $41,000 since its launch in February.
The campaign, according to organizer John Klassen, was “simply hoping to in some small way be an encouragement to a brother who seemed to be a lone voice.”
“Pastor James Coates has been a rare and refreshing voice of courage in these unprecedent[ed] times. 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,” wrote Klassen on the GoFundMe page.
“Pastor James is facing what not too long ago would have been unheard of,” he said, adding that he has no affiliation with Coates and his church—GraceLife church—in Edmonton..
In December 2020, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) fined GraceLife church $1,200 when it hosted more people than the 15 percent limit mandated for faith-based services in the province. In January, the AHS issued a closure order, but Coates continued holding services, and on Feb. 7, the RCMP told him he would be under arrest in two days. Coates turned himself in on Feb. 16.
Coates was charged with multiple Public Health Act offences and a criminal offence related to the bail condition imposed on Feb. 7 by the RCMP at the time. He remained in custody in the Edmonton Remand Centre when he refused to comply with his conditions of release not to hold services.
On March 17, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF), who is representing Coates, announced in a statement that crown prosecutors have agreed to withdraw all but one charge against the pastor. Coates is set to go to trial in May on a count under Alberta’s Public Health Act for holding services that allegedly broke a restriction on the size of gatherings.
On March 22, Coates was released without condition but was charged $1,500 by the provincial court for breaching bail, which the pastor has agreed to pay.
Crown prosecutor Peter Mackenzie and defence lawyer Leighton Grey with the JCCF, had suggested Coates be fined $100 instead, but the judge disagreed.
“I question whether $100 is a proper denunciation of the conduct of Mr. Coates as well as proper deterrence for others that might feel that ‘I can violate the directions of the chief medical officer of health and get $100 fine,’” Provincial Judge Jeffrey Champion said. “It is an issue when someone makes a decision that can affect the health and the lives of thousands of people.”
Champion added that the services held at GraceLife church could have been “super-spreaders” of COVID-19, the disease the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus causes.
“Members of that [church] were going out into the community in general,” said Champion, who noted that Coates has referred to himself as a shepherd.
“The shepherd ought to protect his flock,” the judge said. “Mr. Coates—You don’t get to make that decision for everyone else, and your decisions could have affected the health and safety of so many of your fellow citizens.”
Coates, in a video conference, told Champion that he wasn’t attempting to make a statement by not complying with the bail conditions.
“I realized that’s the way society is going to perceive what’s happening here. [But] I’m simply here in obedience to Jesus Christ, and it’s my obedience to Christ that has put me at odds with the law,” Coates said.
“The court is aware that I’m contesting the legitimacy of that law but please, make no mistake … I’m not trying to make a point. I’m not a political revolutionary.”
GraceLife has continued to hold weekend services while Coates has been in jail, including one this past weekend. AHS said officials did not monitor the latest gathering.
Two weeks ago, the church itself was charged with violating health measures.
JCCF said in its statement that none of the congregants who attended the services at GraceLife since July 2020 have died of or gotten COVID-19.
JCCF President John Carpay said the centre is ready to defend Coates in May.
“We look forward 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,” Carpay said in a statement on March 17.
Meanwhile, Klassen said the funds will not only go to covering Coates’s legal fees, but also to support the pastor, his family, and church. He also urged the supporters to express their voices publicly.
With files from The Canadian Press