Alberta pastor charged with violating Public Health Act, still in custody for refusing conditions: RCMP
EDMONTON -- A pastor west of Edmonton remains in custody Wednesday after he was charged with breaking Alberta's Public Health Act and refusing to agree to the conditions of his release, RCMP said.
James Coates turned himself in to police on Tuesday, two days after a service Alberta Health Services and RCMP attended where he "was not complying with his Undertaking release conditions" issued a week earlier, police said.
The pastor was charged with two counts of contravention of the Public Health Act and failing to comply with a condition of his undertaking.
Coates attended a bail hearing Tuesday and was to be released on conditions, but was kept in custody overnight "after refusing to agree to those conditions," RCMP said.
Those conditions, his lawyer told CTV News, include stopping church services, but "Coates could not, in good conscience, agree to that condition."
The pastor made a court appearance on Wednesday and was given a second court appearance for next Wednesday after he continued to refuse to agree to the conditions, Mounties added.
“We’ve been consistent in our approach of escalated levels of enforcement with Pastor Coates, and we were hopeful to resolve this issue in a different manner,” said RCMP Insp. Mike Lokken. “The Pastor’s actions, and the subsequent effects those actions could have on the health and safety of citizens, dictated our response in this situation.”
On Tuesday, Coates' lawyer told CTV News his client was willing to go to jail in order to do the "right thing."
"His first obedience is to his Lord, is to his God. And normally, obeying Jesus and obeying the government go right in hand," James Kitchen said. "The government's forcing him in to a position where he has to choose between disobeying God and obeying government, or obeying God and disobeying government."
GraceLife was first cited for hosting more than 15 per cent of its capacity at a December service and the pastor was fined $1,200.
A Court of Queen's Bench order was issued in January when it continued to break COVID-19 restrictions.
GraceLife has held services for three consecutive weeks after it was ordered to close at the end of January.
The church was not in compliance with the Public Health Act last Sunday, RCMP said Wednesday.
A day earlier in a statement, GraceLife said: "We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along. If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end – the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections. Our local church is clear evidence that governmental lockdowns are unnecessary. In fact, it is also evidence of how harmful they are."
Criminal lawyer Tom Engel says the RCMP should shut down the church and charge everyone in attendance.
"Every person who is in that church knows that they are breaking the law," he said.
'UNCOMMONLY GOOD' RELATIONSHIP WITH RCMP: KITCHEN
Coates' lawyer told CTV News GraceLife has an "uncommonly good" relationship with the RCMP because "the police have acted, in this case, very differently than how they have acted with a lot of other people."
Complicating Kitchen's claim is the fact that a retired Mountie, Paul Claassen, is GraceLife's chair.
"It leads to the impression that there's a double standard, there's a bias in favour of this church," Engel said.
But in a statement, Insp. Lokken said: "Our response to the non compliance of the Church has been consistent with our overall RCMP strategy in the Province which is; education, an opportunity for compliance, and lastly, enforcement. Parkland RCMP has managed the investigation into the GraceLife Church with absolutely no influence from any member of their administration or congregation, regardless of any past or present affiliation with our organization.
"The RCMP has conducted all their interactions with the Church in an impartial, professional, and respectful manner.”
With files from CTV News Edmonton's Bill Fortier and Alex Antoneshyn