Published:May 3, 2021
The Edmonton-area pastor charged with flouting COVID-19 restrictions tugged at his face mask and called the disease a “so-called pandemic” as he took the stand on Day 1 of his trial Monday.
GraceLife Church pastor James Coates faces a charge under the Public Health Act for leading worship services at his Parkland County church.
GraceLife sparked international controversy earlier this year when it continued to hold in-person services without physical distancing or masking, despite public health orders introduced that limited faith gatherings to 15 per cent of building capacity.
Coates was charged with breaching health restrictions and spent 35 days in jail for refusing to sign a legal undertaking requiring him to stop holding non-compliant services.
“We never wanted this public position that we’ve been given,” Coates said on the witness stand. “It came to us. We’d happily resign all of it to be able to worship quietly on Sundays without all this attention.”
The trial that began Monday deals with a ticket issued to Coates on Dec. 20 for breaching the 15 per cent capacity limit.
Coates admits the basic facts of the offence but argues the provincial restrictions are unconstitutional and an unreasonable infringement on GraceLife’s Section 2 right to freedom of worship.
He also argues he was arbitrarily detained and seeks relief under Sections 7 and 9 of the Charter.
Coates’ trial is taking place as Alberta enters — by some measures — its worst stretch of the pandemic. Despite the ongoing vaccine rollout, Alberta recorded a record-setting 2,433 new infections Saturday. The province’s positivity rates and cases per capita are among the highest in North America.
Coates, 41, took the stand Monday afternoon behind a clear plexiglass barrier. He chose to affirm his oath instead of swear on a Bible.
Coates testified that GraceLife adhered to the initial COVID health rules by moving services online.
Church leaders decided to reopen in-person worship after the government eased restrictions in the summer. He said Premier Jason Kenney’s reference to the coronavirus as an “influenza” cemented their belief that the virus was not as serious as initially thought.
When two GraceLife members tested positive in June, the church conducted its own contact tracing, he said, claiming there was no spread among members and that the church has been COVID free for 37 weeks.
“I don’t believe that COVID-19 poses a serious health risk to our people,” he said.
Sitting in the witness box, Coates occasionally pulled his grey face mask a few inches from his face and lamented that it was “incredibly difficult to speak with a mask on.” He said that when he eats at restaurants he finds it difficult to understand his servers and wished they did not have to wear masks.
He repeatedly criticized the media, police and Alberta Health Services, and said that “self-inflicted lockdowns” were the “greatest threat to the health of Albertans.” He said his faith rendered him unable to turn away 85 per cent of his congregation.
During cross-examination, the prosecutor argued Coates had no proof that his congregation had been COVID-free since June.
“You wouldn’t know whether someone was sick or not,” she charged, saying many COVID cases are asymptomatic and noting Coates said he does not believe certain COVID tests are reliable.
The prosecutor also suggested that the attention around the case has led to a surge in attendance at GraceLife. Coates acknowledged that at one service they had to turn people away to comply with the fire code.
Coates said the increase has brought a “slew of challenges” and that he would “happily return to pre-COVID-19 life.”
The trial is taking place in Edmonton provincial court with limited capacity and added security. The courts earlier granted the public health prosecutor permission to appear without using her name, after she cited “security (issues) that have arisen on this matter.”
Coates is represented by Leighton Grey and James Kitchen, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. Kitchen was the only participant in Monday’s trial not to wear a face mask, claiming a medical exemption.
The Crown’s only witness was health inspector Janine Hanrahan, who has dealt with GraceLife since last summer, around the time it received its first COVID-19 related complaint.
Hanrahan said she worked with the church over the following months explaining social distancing, sanitization and masking rules. In November, she attended the church prior to the service to carry out an assessment.
She said at that point, Coates told her he “didn’t want to police the church members.”
Hanrahan returned Dec. 20 with two RCMP officers and observed about 200 people in the building. By that point, Alberta had imposed a 15 per cent cap on worship services. GraceLife’s capacity is 614, making 15 per cent capacity 92 people.
Hanrahan said the interactions were occasionally tense and that Coates asked the congregation to acknowledge their presence with applause and cheers.
She added that as they were leaving, Coates remarked to one of the officers that “Dr. Deena Hinshaw is a dictator and the premier is hiding behind her.”
Audio of the proceedings is available on the provincial court website.
Coates was released from jail in March after pleading guilty to breaching an undertaking and was fined $1,500 — which was waived in exchange for his time spent in jail.
In April, AHS and law enforcement officials fenced off the GraceLife property. Since then, the church has met secretly in an undisclosed location.
The trial is scheduled to run for four days.