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Enforcement of Alberta's pandemic restrictions no threat to defiant pastor

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Pastor James Coates preaching to his congregation recently. Image: Screenshot of GraceLife Church video

Small groups of supporters of James Coates, the temporarily jailed pastor of an Edmonton-area church who has been defiantly refusing to obey Alberta's COVID-19 restrictions, protested in front of the Edmonton Remand Centre Thursday and yesterday.

They rallied outside that monumental piece of critical Alberta infrastructure demanding the GraceLife Church's pastor be freed.

Pastor Coates can walk out of jail tomorrow if he wishes, of course. All he has to do is agree to his bail conditions. Bail ought to be no problem as he obviously doesn't intend to flee and presumably has plenty of parishioners willing to put up some cash in time for tomorrow's Sunday service.

After all, at Pastor Coates's urging, lots of his congregants were prepared during successive Sunday services to defy public health restrictions on large public gatherings temporarily imposed to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

"Viruses are inevitable in a fallen world," he preached at a recent service, "and it isn't the government's responsibility to protect us from a virus."

One naturally wonders if the United Conservative Party government of Jason Kenney -- which the pastor's supporters are now vigorously attacking -- will use the powers vested in it under the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act to hammer them for occupying the roadside in front of Canada's largest jail?

Readers will recall that the act, passed by the legislature last June, allows the courts to levy fines on individuals of $25,000 a day and put them in jail for up to six months, and includes penalties on corporations of up to $200,000 for blocking, damaging or entering "critical infrastructure," which can include roads, sidewalks or pretty well anywhere else the government decides.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees -- which by coincidence represents the correctional officers responsible at the moment for Pastor Coates's custody -- has challenged the constitutionality of the act in the courts. In the fullness of time, I predict, we will learn that AUPE is right.

In the meantime, though, it seems unlikely the Kenney government would employ the act against Pastor Coates or his church, since this law was obviously intended to suppress the free speech and association rights of trade unionists, environmentalists, Indigenous protesters and others seen by the UCP as enemies of Alberta.

Enemies of Alberta is not a category into which the premier is likely to slot Pastor Coates, even though he is discomfiting Kenney's government at the moment, because in the long run his goals and those of the UCP appear to be much the same.

Meanwhile, given his performance up to now, it's hard to believe the pastor isn't delighted to find himself behind bars.

Remember, he defied orders of the chief medical officer of health on successive Sundays to limit the capacity of his church to 15 per cent of normal, a restriction on freedom of association that unlike many of those of the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act is arguably justifiable under Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Regardless of what you have read on social media, there were never any restrictions on what he could preach or his freedom of religion.

When the Mounties and Alberta Health Services public-health inspectors tried desperately to persuade Pastor Coates to comply with the rules, he ignored them.

On Sunday, February 7, the church southwest of Edmonton was packed. According to the RCMP, he was arrested and released. A court date was set.

On Sunday, February 14, the church was packed again. The Mounties were back and observed he was not complying with the previous Sunday's release order.

Two days later, Pastor Coates turned himself in to the Parkland Detachment, the Mounties said. He was charged with contravening the Public Health Act and failing to comply with a condition of his undertaking, a Criminal Code offence.

At his bail hearing that day before a justice of the peace, he was permitted to be released on conditions -- which he promptly said he wouldn't obey.

He was kept in jail overnight as a result and the next day brought to provincial court in Stony Plain, where he again refused to agree to bail conditions.

The Mounties then took him to the Remand Centre -- no doubt sensing they were being played like a church organ.

Pastor Coates is supposed to be back in court on Wednesday when, most likely, he will be given another chance to be released on bail.

Meanwhile, his views are clear.

He has declared on the church's website that "the science being used to justify lockdown measures is both suspect and selective." He accuses the government and media of "misinformation and fearmongering" about the pandemic.

"What do we believe people should do?" he asked. "We believe … churches should open, businesses should open, families and friends should come together around meals, and people should begin to exercise their civil liberties again. Otherwise we may not get them back. In fact, some say we are on the cusp of reaching the point of no return." (Emphasis added.)

This is dangerous nonsense, but it is important to remember it is not about freedom of religion.

Rather, it is the political line of the Christianist right that makes up much of the UCP base in Alberta, which is in turn is inspired by the Q-conspiracy derangement rampant south of the 49th parallel.

Unsurprisingly, the right in Canada and the United States is creating a massive brouhaha about Pastor Coates's decision to go to jail, painting him as a Christian martyr with the likes of Glen Beck, Breitbart News and Danielle Smith using Kenney's own language to lambaste the premier.

So it was amusing to hear Kenney sounding almost as if he were reciting opposition talking points in response to Smith's attacks on her final Corus Radio show.

But Pastor Coates's behaviour appears quite un-Christian. The founder of that religion, readers will recall, preached on the mount that "all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."

For Coates to abide by pandemic restrictions while continuing to preach his religious beliefs unimpeded would seem like a reasonable interpretation of that teaching. Instead, he insists on endangering others by preaching defiance of restrictions and scepticism about COVID-19.

Presumably, most of us would prefer we were not infected with the coronavirus, even by people so deluded they believe it is part of a conspiracy, in Pastor Coates's words, "to fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties" and make us, "if it is ever permitted to be over, … utterly reliant on government."

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, this has nothing to do with religious freedom.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Screenshot of GraceLife Church video

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