Tuesday, word came out that Edmonton pastor James Coates, graduate of Master’s Seminary of Los Angeles and pastor of GraceLife Church which I wrote about two weeks ago, has been arrested and jailed for his failure to comply with Alberta’s COVID lockdown requirements. He is being represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom who has appealed to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to release Pastor Coates unconditionally. The church has been warned repeatedly to stop holding large, in-person gatherings and it has repeatedly ignored that order, believing their duty to God supersedes their duty to the state. The history of the church’s efforts to remain open is laid out here. Pastor Coates presented his argument for remaining open in his recent sermon. He argued that the evangelical church has taken a legalistic approach to the Scriptures in that, unless the Scripture explicitly addresses the current situation, not merely by implication, the church is under obligation to the state not the Scripture.
Pastor Jacob Reaume of Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo was forced to abide by the COVID related Reopening Ontario Act. Yesterday he interviewed the lawyer, James Kitchen, who is representing Pastor Coates about the situation. Kitchen laid out the events of the week as it pertains to Pastor Coates. The church held its normal service on Sunday February 14th. An Alberta public health official came and reported the violations. Monday the RCMP asked Coates to voluntarily surrender himself to them which he did on Tuesday. When he appeared before the justice of the peace, the JP was willing to release the pastor provided the agree to stop performing his pastoral duties as he had been doing. Pastor Coates could not agree to these terms and was remanded, apparently until the matter is resolved which may be days or even weeks away.
With the jailing of Pastor Coates, the situation in Canada over religious freedom has been elevated significantly. American churches who defied COVID lockdown restrictions have found some legal protection, if not complete agreement, as the case of Grace Community Church of Los Angeles indicates. But the situation in Canada is decidedly different. While Canadians have The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the legal interpretation of those rights have been less sympathetic across the nation generally as it relates to the COVID restrictions. Churches have been forced into compliance with extreme fines looming and now incarceration if they fail to yield. That is until yesterday.
Further to the west of Alberta in British Columbia, churches received some good news. Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson of the BC Supreme Court denied an injunction request from the provincial Attorney General and Health Minister, Dr. Bonnie Henry, against three Fraser Valley churches who were attempting to maintain in-person services. This denial is not the end of the matter, only a temporary respite. The churches filed a petition against the province for infringement of their religious rights under the Charter which is set to be heard in March.
The stories of these churches are far from over. With legal questions and potential fines pending in several provinces and COVID still a problem, who but God knows where this will end up. Ironically, Ontario churches (some at least) are facing a relaxing of restrictions this coming Sunday. My former church will be open for the first time since before Christmas at thirty percent occupancy, meaning they will hold two Sunday services to accommodate those who wish to attend.
We need to keep our Canadian brethren in prayer. It is easy to stand back and criticize or commend what is going on across the border, but the consequences of these court challenges may have far reaching implications for the church in Canada. The case of James Coates could be precedent setting and influence other church related cases down the road. We need to pray for Coates, his family and his church, who are standing with him in this matter. Apparently, the church has seen an increase in attendance as a result of their stand. Will this continue if the pastor stays in jail and the levied fines become unbearable? God help these brethren