It didn’t have to be this way.
Public health officials and law enforcement tried education, warnings, and helpful suggestions before they finally resorted to arresting James Coates, pastor of Edmonton-area GraceLife Church, for refusing to comply with precautions designed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Even after he was arrested, they offered him the chance to be released on bail, with just one simple and reasonable condition: Stop breaking the law.
Coates continues to refuse, so he’ll remain in prison until his trial, scheduled for the first week of May.
The Court of Queen’s Bench reached that decision last week, after Justice Peter Michalyshyn reviewed the case on appeal. He agreed with the prosecutor’s assessment that Coates’ release would represent a danger to the public because of his expressed intent to continue violating public health orders:
The law that Mr. Coates clearly intends not to be bound by remains valid and enforceable against him. Mr. Coates’ strongly held religious beliefs and convictions do not overcome those valid and enforceable laws. He remains subject to the rule of law.
Coates is being represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. The organization’s president, John Carpay, insists that this is a matter of anti-religious discrimination and charter rights:
Pastor Coates is a peaceful Christian minister. He should never have been required to violate his conscience and effectively stop pastoring his church as a condition to be released. In every way this was a violation of Pastor Coates’ Charter rights and freedoms.
As it’s been stated ad nauseam, though, nobody ever asked Coates to stop carrying out his pastoral duties. Many other churches have carried on just fine with work-around solutions like online sermons, drive-in services, and reduced-capacity, physically-distanced worship gatherings. Sure, it’s likely inconvenient at times, but when the alternative is a longer, stronger, more deadly pandemic, a little inconvenience seems a fair trade-off to keep people safe and healthy.
Coates is calling for something beyond mere freedom of religious expression. He wants the absolute right to practice his religion in the exact way he deems necessary without a single shred of inconvenience. In his mind, making changes to protect community health — especially for vulnerable people — is the same thing as outright religious oppression.
And he has a sizable following of parishioners who continue to hold over-capacity, unmasked services in his absence. It’s no wonder: Before his arrest, Coates was speaking frequently about public health restrictions in his sermons, advancing the argument that there should be literally no restrictions on freedom of worship. Clearly his flock is buying what he’s selling: during the hearing, more than 50 people gathered around a banner that read #FreeJamesCoates. Others carried signs that criticized Alberta premier Jason Kenney for supporting COVID health rules and identified Coates as “a political prisoner.”
Naturally, none of them wore masks, and social distancing was not practiced.
Judge Michalyshyn noted that bail appeal hearings like this one usually carry a publication ban, which Coates specifically waived. The hearing was conducted with more than 350 spectators in attendance via web conferencing.
Who was it who said there’s no such thing as bad publicity?
The level of publicity has some of the people involved in enforcing public health guidelines nervous about their safety on a level beyond pandemic awareness: they’re concerned about interacting with a public fed on a religious-persecution narrative. For instance, according to the Edmonton Journal, the prosecutor has asked to remain unnamed by media sources. That’s an extremely unusual move, and she cites concerns about her personal security as the reason.
Carpay called her request “disgraceful” and “slimy” because it implies that Coates’ congregation might resort to violence… but their actions thus far have already demonstrated a willingness to disregard other people’s personal safety if it means an iota of compromise on what they want.
If you’re going to openly and loudly express your indifference to other people’s safety and well-being, you’d better be prepared to be taken at your word.