For readers who have been following the case of Pastor James Coates at GraceLife Baptist Church in Alberta, the legal case against him must seem pretty clear-cut and logical.
Coates is one of a handful of Christian pastors who refused to comply with COVID precautions in his community, insisting that required changes — namely mask-wearing, physical distancing, and reduced-capacity church services — violated his religious freedoms.
Assuming good faith, Alberta Public Health tried to help him meet the criteria for safe social distancing. He refused to comply, continuing to host unsafe services with his entire congregation. After his eventual arrest, the courts ordered him released on bail under the sole condition that he stop violating public health restrictions. He stated his refusal in no uncertain terms.
Now, scarcely a week later, Crown prosecutors have agreed to withdraw the majority of the charges keeping him in prison and permit his immediate unconditional release. He could be out of jail as soon as Monday, after a slight delay. Coates remains charged with one count of violating an Order of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.
Per the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom, the organization representing Coates in his ongoing case, that’s a good thing:
The single charge remaining has not been withdrawn, as the Justice Centre and Pastor Coates want the matter heard at trial, to determine the constitutionality of the public health order that churches only hold worship services at 15% capacity, and to compel the government to produce scientific evidence that might support these violations of Charter freedoms.
Throwing down that particular gauntlet against the Alberta government could very well backfire on the Justice Centre, though, because the evidence exists — even within Alberta’s own experience over the past year. Commentators have pointed out that downgrading to less restrictive measures through November 2020 left Alberta facing exponential growth in case numbers. Says CBC guest columnist Matt Szostakiwskyj:
This means lesser measures weren’t effective enough in controlling the spread of the disease, and that’s important to the courts. The law must strike a balance between the impact on personal freedom and the overall public benefit. While many feel they have been unduly impacted, they should remember these orders are intended to protect the systems that serve all Albertans.
But it’s hard to believe Coates even cares about the possible public health outcomes associated with his refusal to compromise one single iota to stop the spread. He has stated outright in his sermons that nothing short of unrestricted freedom of worship is acceptable, because the government’s job is to act as the instrument of God’s will.
It’s strange that God has clearly not been in contact with the Alberta government about what He wishes despite apparently having given Coates all the answers.
Spokesman Gregory Harris says the police are working with Alberta Health Services to resolve the issue in a way that protects Albertans from the spread of COVID-19. He acknowledges that the church “continues to create unacceptable public health risks” and has violated a whole slew of official orders, but there’s no word on when or how anybody intends to deal with the problem.
Meanwhile, Coates’ GraceLife Church continues to gather in violation of COVID public health orders. The RCMP has been monitoring the services “to keep the peace” without actually intervening in any way: no fines, no arrests, no inspections, not even a friendly warning. They claim they’re there “to make sure everybody’s safe and goes home safe,” but without enforcing the rules for COVID safety, it’s not clear what they’re really doing beyond enabling people who flout the rules.
The crowning irony here is the way that Coates’ release undercuts the ongoing persecution narrative he’s been so insistently crafting this whole time. Far from being trampled underfoot by evil Big Daddy Government, Coates has demonstrated that Christians (no word on other faith groups) can break the law without consequences, even in ways that risk the health, lives, and livelihoods of the rest of the community, as long as they couch it in the language of religious freedom… even if following the law doesn’t actually prevent anyone from practicing their religion.
Public health compromises aren’t persecution. By bending over backwards to meet churches’ unrealistic expectation of absolutely zero change or compromise during a time of global pandemic, the Crown has demonstrated that cries of religious persecution, however unreasonable, are all it takes to evade consequences.
If only people affected by COVID could evade them as easily.