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Alberta government wanted to censor church pastor on trial: lawyer

Last Updated May 4, 2021 at 7:15 pm MDT

EDMONTON — A lawyer for an Alberta pastor accused of violating COVID-19 rules says the province’s health agency decided to penalize the church leader as a way to censor him.

James Kitchen has told the trial of James Coates in Edmonton that his client was charged the same day he preached a sermon criticizing Alberta’s leadership on the pandemic.

Coates was ticketed on Dec. 20, 2020, under the Public Health Act after health inspectors said he held services at GraceLife Church that ignored capacity limits, physical distancing and masking.

Kitchen, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, says it’s not a coincidence that Coates received a ticket on the same day he preached a sermon critical of the way Premier Jason Kenney was handling the COVID-19 crisis.

The lawyer says health inspectors had come to multiple services before that and had noted violations of COVID-19 regulations in their reports.

READ MORE: Church shutdown constitutional if there are reasonable grounds, say experts (April 8)

He says inspectors had also come on the morning of Dec. 20 before Coates gave his sermon, but it wasn’t until after he was done preaching that RCMP officers showed up to ticket him.

Kitchen says public-health orders meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 have violated the pastor’s charter rights to freedom of expression, assembly and worship.

The claim from Coates’ legal team is that 15 per cent capacity limits interfere with Coates’ freedom of expression because it removes 85 per cent of his listeners.

But Crown prosecutors argued that under health restrictions, Coates was still able to practise his religion and hold multiple services virtually.

READ MORE: Protesters tear down then rebuild metal fences, denounce closure of GraceLife church (April 11)

Coates openly admitted in court he broke COVID-19 rules by not enforcing masking, social distancing or limiting attendees during Sunday services at GraceLife church.

On the stand Monday, Coates referred to COVID as a “so-called pandemic” and called the restrictions “sinful” because, he claimed, the virus did not pose a serious risk to his people.

With both sides completing their arguments, the judge will make a decision June 7.