Jailed for preaching in Canada

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: religious liberty in Canada.

The province of Alberta has strict rules for churches meeting in person during the pandemic. Church services are limited to 15 percent capacity. But GraceLive Church near Edmonton has disregarded those orders.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Authorities charged Pastor James Coates with violating public health rules. Just over two weeks ago, Coates turned himself in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 

He’s been behind bars ever since, and courts say he will stay there until his trial in May unless he agrees to comply with the restrictions. Coates says he cannot do that in good conscience. 

The Canadian Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms is representing James Coates in this case. John Carpay is its president and joins us now to talk about it. John, good morning!

JOHN CARPAY, GUEST: Good morning! 

REICHARD: Well, let’s start by laying the foundation here. As we mentioned, you are in Canada. Now, the U.S. Constitution explicitly protects religious liberty, though it requires vigilant and constant defense. But what kinds of religious freedom protections does the Canadian Constitution provide? 

CARPAY: The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is similar to the Bill of Rights and it protects freedom of expression, religion, conscience, peaceful assembly, freedom of association. However in our charter, it also says the government can violate those rights and freedoms if the government has a sufficiently compelling reason and if the benefits of a law that violates religious freedom, the benefits are greater than the harms. And so there’s a lot of latitude for courts to approve of government violations of our rights and freedoms. And governments will frequently win in these constitutional cases. But the onus is on the government to justify the violation. And so in these court actions, and in regard to Pastor Coates as well as numerous court actions that we’ve commenced across the country, the onus is on the government to come up with the evidence in court. 

REICHARD: What rules have been put on churches by the Canadian government and are they national rules or specific to Alberta? 

CARPAY: Each province has its own restrictions. In Alberta currently the capacity limit at churches is at 15 percent of fire code capacity and the people attending the house of worship need to be 6 feet apart from each other unless they are members of the same family, and they need to wear masks in church. And Pastor Coates and a lot of people in Alberta are asking the government, “Where is the science to back this up?” And we’re not getting answers and so gradually more and more people are starting to not comply with these measures because they’re unscientific and they’re clearly a violation of our freedoms. 

REICHARD: Both you and Pastor Coates believe that these restrictions on church gatherings violate the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms. How so?

CARPAY: Well, we’ve got the protection for religious freedom. That includes the right to worship God as you deem best. So, if you have a religious conviction that it’s important to meet together in person, then that is the practice of your faith and the government has to respect that, unless they have a good reason for violating it. Pastor Coates and his congregation believe that they should meet together — and they’re churches of a size that if they did want to go down to 15 percent capacity, they might have to hold six or seven or eight services every Sunday, which is not practical. I don’t think any pastor, no matter how much he might love the sound of his own voice, I don’t think any pastor could preach six sermons on one day.  

REICHARD: Is the argument by Pastor Coates that he thinks the government has no right to impose any restrictions? 

CARPAY: No, we know that COVID is not an unusually deadly killer. We know that it does threaten if you’re 85 years old and you’re in a nursing home and you’re already dying of cancer, heart disease, emphysema, diabetes, etcetera, yes, COVID can shorten the lives of some people that are vulnerable. But for children and teenagers and young adults and pretty much 90 percent of the population, COVID poses no threat. So, therefore, these restrictions we know 11 months down the road that these restrictions are simply not necessary. What we should do instead is protect the vulnerable in senior homes rather than taking away the human rights and the fundamental freedoms of an entire population. 

REICHARD: Pastor Coates remains behind bars, and he may have to stay there until his trial in May unless he agrees to certain conditions the court has placed on his bail. What are those conditions? 

CARPAY: Pastor Coates could make a solemn promise to start complying with the government restrictions to religious freedom and if he made that commitment, he could get out of jail. But being an honest man, he’s not going to make the commitment just to get out of jail and then a few days later break his word. 

REICHARD: John, where does this case go from here? What should we be watching for? 

CARPAY: Well, the trial, sadly, is two months away, which is a pretty long time to be locked up when you have not committed any crime. The Justice Center is filing an appeal with the next level of court, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, and our goal is to get him out of jail as soon as possible. If that fails, then the next step would be to go to trial in the month of May.

REICHARD: We’ll stay on this story. John Carpay is president of the Canadian Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms. Really appreciate your time here, John. Thank you.

CARPAY: Thanks for having me on your show.

(Photo/The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms) GraceLife Church 

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