Edmonton trial begins for GraceLife Church pastor charged with ignoring COVID-19 health rules

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The trial of an Edmonton-area pastor charged with ignoring COVID-19 health restrictions is set to begin Monday as new infections surge in Alberta.

GraceLife Church pastor James Coates faces a charge under the Public Health Act for leading worship services at his Parkland County church. GraceLife continued to hold packed services without physical distancing or masking, despite public health orders introduced in December that limited faith gatherings to 15 per cent of building capacity.

Coates was charged with breaching health restrictions in February and spent 35 days in jail for refusing to sign a legal undertaking requiring him to stop holding non-compliant services.

Coates was eventually released and in April, after months of non-compliance, before AHS and law enforcement officials fenced off GraceLife’s campus. Since then, the church has met secretly in at least one undisclosed location.

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Coates is expected to argue that the provincial restrictions are unconstitutional and an unreasonable infringement on GraceLife’s right to freedom of worship, protected under Section 2 of the Charter.

Constitutional scholars have said the restrictions likely do infringe on Section 2 but that such limits can be imposed if they can be justified under Section 1 of the Charter.

A fence has gone up around GraceLife Church and security is on scene to keep church members away on Wednesday, April 7, 2021.
A fence has gone up around GraceLife Church and security is on scene to keep church members away on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

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.

The trial is taking place at Edmonton’s provincial court, where there is limited capacity and added security. The courts earlier granted the public health prosecutor leave to appear without using her name, after she cited “security (issues) that have arisen on this matter.”

Audio of the proceedings will be available online for up to 1,000 listeners. Video of the proceeding is not being made available.

Coates is represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary-based law centre that downplays the pandemic’s severity. On its website, the centre billed the trial as “Cult of Covid v. Gracelife Church.”

The trial is scheduled to run four days.

More to come.

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

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