The pastor of Grace Life Church in Alberta, Canada, was arrested and jailed for violating COVID-19 restrictions, but he says he will not obey government orders because it would violate his conscience and duty as a minister.
Pastor James Coates remains in custody after being arrested for the church’s repeated violations of COVID-19 restrictions. In December, Coates was fined and the church’s violations were noted, which included congregants not wearing masks, not observing social distancing, and violating the 15 percent capacity limit.
After the church continued to hold services in violation of public health orders, the church was ordered to close its doors.
On Feb. 14, police went to the church to “assess compliance in relation to conditions issued to the pastor on Feb. 7.” Royal Canadian Mounted Police issued a statement saying, “Observations were made that James Coates was not complying with his undertaking release conditions, and the church was not in compliance with the Public Health Order.”
Police did not arrest Coates at the church, but this week asked that he turn himself in, which he did on Tuesday. Coates was charged with two counts of contravention of the Public Health Act and failure to comply with conditions.
Authorities were willing to release Coates on the condition that he stop holding services, but he refused.
“We’ve been consistent in our approach of escalated levels of enforcement with Pastor Coates, and we were hopeful to resolve this issue in a different manner,” Inspector Mike Lokken said. “The pastor’s actions and the subsequent effects those actions could have on the health and safety of citizens dictated our response in this situation.”
Of his refusal to stop holding services, Coates’s attorney James Kitchen said, “His first obedience is to his Lord, is to his God. And normally, obeying Jesus and obeying the government go right in hand. The government’s forcing him in to a position where he has to choose between disobeying God and obeying government, or obeying God and disobeying government.”
Kitchen claimed the government’s orders are “reminiscent of what one encounters in dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s ‘1984.’” He explained:
“The congregants of GraceLife refuse to accept the Alberta government’s dystopian ‘new normal.’ Their first loyalty is to obey their God, not government. They are committed to gathering, as they always have, for in-person worship services. They will challenge this excessive and unlawful government oppression rather than turn their back on their beliefs. They also believe they are lawfully exercising their Charter-protected freedoms and that the government’s restrictions are not justifiable.”
The attorney also warned:
“Governments never destroy civil liberties without pointing to some reason that sounds good, such as ‘safety’ or ‘equality.’ The very reason certain rights and freedoms are protected by the Charter is so that government cannot simply ignore those rights by merely asserting its actions are for a good cause.”
Coates and Grace Life Church have maintained that the restrictions pose more harm than the virus itself and that government exceeds its authority when it infringes on worship. On Feb. 14, just days before his arrest, Coates preached a sermon on Romans 13:1-4 entitled, “Directing Government to its Duty.”
Church officials released a public statement, detailing how the church originally followed orders. In July, when two attendees tested positive for the virus, the church initiated contact tracing and shifted to online services for two weeks. Church officials claim that since that time, the church has met for 28 consecutive Sundays without incident.
It added that while none of its members have died from COVID-19, one congregant died because they were denied necessary health care due to lockdowns. The statement noted:
“By the time the so-called “pandemic” is over, if it is ever permitted to be over, Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent. As such, we believe love for our neighbor demands that we exercise our civil liberties. We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along. If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end — the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections. Our local church is clear evidence that governmental lockdowns are unnecessary. In fact, it is also evidence of how harmful they are. Without going into detail, we recently lost the life of one of our precious congregants who was denied necessary health care due to government lockdown measures.”
The argument could be made that members of the church should be wearing masks and attempting to observe social distancing. However, government decrees limiting church attendance and particularly ordering a church to cease holding services is an overreach.
Coates and his church hold the biblical view that government’s authority is derived from God. The Lord is the one who grants power to government, and when government orders believers to violate His commands and their consciences, allegiance to God supersedes obedience to government. In Acts 5:28-29, after the apostles were brought before the religious leaders, the high priest said to them, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Let me be clear, the apostles had been ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus. The religious leaders were trying to prevent the gospel from being shared. I am not accusing the Albertan government of trying to do the same, but their orders have largely the same result. Christians are commanded to assemble together and proclaim the Word of God and worship. By attempting to limit or ban services, the government is causing Christians to violate this command.
COVID-19 orders such as these violate the natural rights belonging to citizens and exceed government authority. As Kitchen warns, government will always have a reason that sounds reasonable even beneficial for infringing upon rights, but rights are protected to prevent such ostensibly noble infringement.
2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Indeed, all who want to live in a godly way in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Coates believes that agreeing to no longer hold in-person worship services violates his conscience and God’s Word, and so he is choosing to suffer for Christ.