Two pastors from Alberta, Canada, who held church services in defiance of provincial public health orders, have had their names cleared after all charges against them were dropped last month.
James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton and Timothy Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary spent a combined 53 days in jail in early 2021 for refusing to close the doors of their respective churches.
However, in late July of this year, in Ingram v. Alberta, the Alberta Court of King’s Bench ruled that the temporary powers used to prosecute the pastors were invalid.
As reported by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), which provided legal aid to both pastors:
On July 31, 2023, the Alberta Court of King’s Bench released a consequential decision in Ingram v. Alberta: the Public Health Orders that Pastor Coates and GraceLife church had violated were found to be [beyond the legal authority of] the Public Health Act and were, therefore, invalid. The Act requires that all decisions with respect to public health orders must be made by the Chief Medical Officer of Health and not by the Alberta Cabinet. In her concluding remarks, Justice Barbara Romaine stated, ‘While involvement of elected officials in these important decisions may be desirable and even necessary, this involvement should have been structured in such a way as to mitigate the risk of political priorities interfering with the informed and well-qualified judgment of the [Chief Medical Officer of Health], as provided in the Public Health Act, without ignoring the underlying public interest.’ (emphasis added)
JCCF has further confirmed that as a consequence of Ingram v. Alberta, “all charges against Pastor Coates and GraceLife Church have been dismissed by the Crown, and the Crown will not be seeking a further jail sentence for Pastor Coates.”
The Crown likewise withdrew all charges against Fairview Baptist Church.
Indeed, according to JCCF, “it is expected that the Alberta Crown will withdraw all Covid-related tickets and may reimburse all fines for violations of Covid-related public health orders paid by Albertans.”
The actions of Pastors Coates and Stephens provide an instructive lesson, not just for heavy-handed secular authorities, but also for Christians and Christian leaders who were critical of those who forged a more resolute path through COVID-era restrictions.
COVID-compliant churches commonly appealed to Romans 13:1, which states, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities….” However, an unquestioning application of this verse failed to take into account that public health orders were frequently issued hastily and on shaky legal grounds.
And the unfortunate reality of the situation is that the government has not admitted its actions toward Pastors Coates and Stephens—and many other Christians, for that matter—were morally wrong. The court noted the shaky legal ground of who was giving these orders and how those orders were given, but this misses the underlying violation of Christians’ right to worship together.
Indeed, the price for doing so was high for Pastor James Coates and Pastor Timothy Stephens.
Coates was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on February 15, 2021, for ignoring capacity limits for indoor gatherings, as well as mask and social distancing guidelines. For Coates’ part, he believed he was simply exercising his right to freedom of religion, conscience, association, and peaceful assembly under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
On refusing to sign an undertaking to obey Alberta’s public health orders, Coates was jailed in the Edmonton Remand Centre for 35 days.
In April of the same year, authorities in Alberta temporarily closed GraceLife Church for failing to comply with public health measures. The church’s facilities were even physically fenced off by the government to prevent access.
In events that almost paralleled Coates’ experience, Pastor Timothy Stephens was arrested at his church on May 13th, 2021, by Calgary Police and spent 18 days in jail.
The two men, who had no connection to one another before the pandemic, have each told their story in the recently released documentary The Essential Church.
As expressed in the film, the two pastors’ central conviction was that for the state to designate church services as “non-essential” was for the state to make a theological claim. For Coates and Stephens, it was a theological claim that evidently contradicted Scripture: Hebrews 10:25, for example, admonishes believers against “giving up meeting together.”
Their highest fealty was to God, not the state, they reasoned, which meant keeping their church doors open, come what may.
Coates and Stephens viewed COVID closures as an issue of conscience, consistent with disputes throughout church history in which believers paid even the ultimate price for their religious convictions.
Though in the minority, Coates and Stephens were joined by other Christian leaders who faced legal challenges for defying human rights incursions during COVID. These included John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in California; Rob McCoy of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in California; Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida; Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana; fellow Canadian Artur Pawlowski of Calgary; and others.
Leighton Grey, lead counsel for Pastor Coates, summarized his client’s legal victory thus:
Pastor James Coates and GraceLife Church endured a great deal of vilification and abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was meted out by the media, the Kenney government, Alberta Health Services, the RCMP, many Albertans, and even the Alberta Courts. One Judge went so far as to accuse Pastor Coates of endangering the lives of many Albertans, without there being any evidence before the Court to substantiate that accusation. That same Judge even threatened to give Coates even more jail time than the 35 days he had already served. Another Judge told Pastor Coates that, despite having been jailed, his Charter right to liberty had somehow not been violated. In the end, all of the Covid lockdown restrictions were declared illegal. So, this is a day of justice for Pastor Coates and indeed for every Albertan who continues to support the Supremacy of God and the Rule of Law.
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