Alberta church and pastor breach public health orders, cite charter rights

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Both GraceLife Church and its pastor, James Coates, have been charged under section 73(1) of the Alberta Public Health Act for breaching public health orders. They argue that the public health orders in question infringe their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

On Wednesday March 10, 2021 RCMP announced that GraceLife Church “as an entity” was charged for breaching Alberta public health orders. The church held services that exceeded the 15 per cent capacity allowed under section 73(1) of the Public Health Act on both February 21 and 28. 

One of GraceLife Church’s Sunday services was noted to be so busy some members were turned away after the building reached full capacity. After being served with summons to attend provincial court on March 5, 2021, RCMP stated that the Church again operated at over 15 per cent occupancy at a service on March 7. 

GraceLife Church’s pastor, James Coates, is currently in jail as a result of his violation of public health orders. He was charged with two counts of violating Alberta’s Public Health Act, and then under the Criminal Code for refusing to agree to the conditions of his bail release. His bail review application was dismissed on March 5 by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. Coates will remain in jail until his trial in May. 

Both Coates and GraceLife Church are being represented by different lawyers working with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. The president of the Calgary-based organization, John Carpay, has stated that what is on trial is the Alberta government’s health orders. He has said that the government needs to be held accountable for allowing public health orders that infringe on constitutional rights.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of religion, expression, assembly, and association. However, infringement of Charter rights is permitted when it is properly justified. Legal experts at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary have stated that, given the COVID-19 pandemic, government measures currently seem justifiable. 

“I think a court would probably also find that the government’s response is proportionate,” said Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s faculty of law, to Global News. “Particularly in Alberta, where the government really has tried to — perhaps more so than many other provinces — wait to impose restriction, to remove restrictions as early as possible, to try to balance restrictions against other goals.”

Both Coates and GraceLife Church’s legal representation have said they intend to fight the charges leveled against their clients. To do so they will need to demonstrate that the government’s public health orders are unreasonable. 

Carpay emphasized in a recent Global News article that Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, is “one doctor” and there are other experts who disagree with her approach. 

GraceLife Church is not the only church in Alberta to have wilfully violated public health orders. The Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary was fined $1,200 for refusing to comply with public health orders, and their pastor, Tim Stephens, says he faces a further $100,00 penalty in court summons. The church has vowed to continue with services that do not follow public health orders. Six other churches have now joined in what they have called “The Church Must Gather” movement.

This is not an issue isolated to Alberta. Churches across Canada have contested public health orders by alleging that they violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario.  However, concurrently many religious figures and organizations have emphasized the importance of following public health orders. For example, the Edmonton Interfaith Centre released a letter signed by many different faith leaders which asked that everyone follow public health orders. 

In the next few months, courts will continue to address, likely in more depth, whether public health orders passed during the pandemic are legitimate and reasonable.

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA or PBSC