Two Canadian pastors who were jailed for refusing to close their churches during the COVID crisis have finally had all charges dropped. James Coates and Timothy Stephens spent a combined 53 days in jail in early 2021. At one stage the Alberta provincial government fenced off Pastor Coates’ Edmonton church.
The pastors expressed disappointment they were cleared on a technicality and not on discriminatory grounds. A court ruled that the temporary powers used to prosecute them were invalid because Alberta’s government leaders enforced the public health orders and not the chief medical officer as required by law.
The orders which ruled that churches were ‘non-essential services’ were frequently issued hastily and on shaky legal grounds. The Alberta government may be forced to withdraw all COVID-related fines and to reimburse those that were paid.
The Canberra Declaration’s Daily Declaration writes “The unfortunate reality of the situation is that the government has not admitted that its actions toward Pastors Coates and Stephen, and many other Christians, for that matter, were morally wrong. The court noted the shaky legal ground of who was giving these orders and how those orders were given, but this misses the underlying violation of Christians’ right to worship together.”
The story of the pastors who didn’t even know each other before the pandemic has been told in a documentary called The Essential Church.
It reveals their central conviction was that for the state to designate church services as “non-essential” was for the state to make a theological claim that contradicted Scriptures such as Hebrews 10:25 which admonishes believers against “giving up meeting together.”
The Daily Declaration notes “[Pastors] Coates and Stephens viewed COVID closures as an issue of conscience, consistent with disputes throughout church history in which believers paid even the ultimate price for their religious convictions.”