GraceLife Church pastor returns to pulpit after jail time for breaching COVID-19 public health order

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GraceLife Church was bustling Sunday morning as pastor James Coates returned to the pulpit after being jailed in February for flouting COVID-19 public health measures.

The church just a few minutes west of Edmonton in Parkland County has continued to hold packed Sunday services despite RCMP and Alberta Health Services inspectors appearing each week to ensure public health measures aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19 are followed. RCMP officials have repeatedly stated those measures were not followed while they were on scene. The parking lot was filling quickly around 10 a.m. Sunday, prior to the 10:45 a.m. sermon from Coates.

Coates was released from custody Monday after pleading guilty to breaching a court undertaking that revolved around following COVID-19 public health restrictions. He remained at the Edmonton Remand Centre for 35 days after not agreeing to following court orders if released.

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Before receiving a $1,500 fine from the court, Coates said it was his dedication to Jesus Christ that was putting him at odds with the law. After his guilty plea, several other charges against Coates were withdrawn and he was released from jail with no court-ordered conditions.

When asked last week what steps Alberta Health can take to enforce public health measures if orders continue to be ignored, spokeswoman Sherene Khaw said enforcement decisions are made by local health inspectors or law enforcement.

Shawna King, a spokeswoman with Alberta Justice, echoed that line, saying individual enforcement decisions are made by the local health inspector.

RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Laurel Scott, said Tuesday, police are able to issue tickets in relation to public health regulation breaches. She said when it comes to GraceLife Church, RCMP are available to assist Alberta Health Services this Sunday if necessary.

RCMP have previously said only a public health inspector has the authority to shut down an establishment.

Alberta Health Services spokesman Kerry Williamson said he did not have anything further to add when asked who is able to enforce orders. He did not expand on what further steps AHS public health inspectors may be considering if the church continues to not follow public health restrictions.

Alberta currently allows in-person faith and religious gatherings to be held to a maximum of 15 per cent of fire code capacity as long as physical distancing can be maintained and masks are worn. By contrast, British Columbia does not allow any in-person religious or faith gatherings.

Several churches in B.C.’s Fraser Valley saw a judge dismiss a petition arguing they should be allowed to open. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), the same group that represents Coates, represented the B.C. churches. They said the judge found the provincial orders did infringe on the church’s rights but that it was justified.

Ontario has taken a regional approach to its public health restrictions with most regions allowing up to 30 per cent capacity for indoor religious gatherings, weddings and funerals. They are also allowing 100 people to gather for outdoor events.

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