GraceLife lawyer argues ticket came in response to sermon critical of government, health officials

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Lawyers representing the Edmonton-area pastor charged with breaching COVID-19 restrictions argue officials chose to ticket him only after he gave a sermon critical of government and health authorities.

On Tuesday, provincial court Judge Robert Shaigec heard constitutional arguments in the case of GraceLife Church Pastor James Coates, who is charged with breaching the Public Health Act for holding worship services without COVID capacity restrictions at the Parkland County church.

Coates was ticketed Dec. 20, 2020, and later spent 35 days in jail for refusing to sign a legal undertaking requiring him to abide by public health rules.

James Kitchen, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, argued that in addition to infringing on  Coates’ religious liberties, the COVID restrictions impact on Coates’ right to freedom of expression.

“The best explanation for why that ticket was issued that particular Sunday … is because it was meant to impose a chilling effect on Pastor Coates,” he said.

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Coates admitted that he and his congregation ignored 15 per cent capacity limits on worship services introduced in December, but argues those restrictions violate seven different sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Kitchen argued GraceLife had been in breach of the restrictions when health and RCMP officials inspected the premise on previous Sundays. However, “that ticket wasn’t issued until Pastor Coates preached a sermon critical of the government.”

He noted on that day, a health inspector and RCMP attended the church before the sermon, but only returned to issue the ticket after Coates gave his sermon, which was live-streamed online.

“It was clear the 15 per cent was exceeded long before he preached (that sermon),” Kitchen said. “Why issue the ticket after?”

Kitchen has declined to wear a face mask during the proceedings, claiming a medical exemption.

The Crown is expected to argue the health restrictions are justified under Section 1 of the Charter.

More to come.

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