Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a number of challenges to religious liberty. In recent days, there have been several major developments related to religious freedom on both the domestic and international fronts. Below we’ve highlighted three very positive developments spanning from Canada to Scotland to Washington, D.C.
Pastor James Coates released after 35 days in jail
James Coates, the pastor of GraceLife Church outside the city of Edmonton, Canada, has been released after 35 days in jail. Coates was charged with violating public health restrictions related to COVID-19.
The most outrageous aspect of Coates’ situation is the fact that his “provincial infraction” earned him significant jail time despite being an infraction “that is not punishable by jail time.” Though he has been released and had his criminal charges dropped (pleading guilty to a “health order violation” instead), questions and frustrations remain concerning Coates’ unjust treatment by Canadian authorities.
In response to Canada’s mandate that in-person attendance at church services be limited to no more than 15% capacity, and that congregants wear masks while social distancing, Coates maintained his conviction that “whole congregations must meet together during one service.” When his congregation did not comply with Emergency Health Orders authorized by the Alberta Health Act, this set in motion Alberta Health Service’s overreaching and inequitable response, which ultimately resulted in Coates spending more than a month in jail.
As the ERLC argued in February, the decision to jail Coates over COVID-19 restrictions was unduly punitive and a significant overreach of government authority. Coates has another court date in May. Christians should pay close attention to how this case unfolds, praying for a favorable outcome that recognizes Canadians’ right to religious freedom, even amid concerns for public health.
While the pandemic has warranted various precautions for the sake of public health and safety, the implications of this case, in particular, transcend present concerns and could have a significant impact for the future of religious liberty in Canada.
Numerical cap removed from Washington, D.C., churches
In a significant victory for religious liberty, Judge Trevor N. McFadden recently struck down the numerical cap applying to houses of worship in the nation’s capital. Notably, Washington was the last remaining city in the United States with a numerical limit on indoor religious gatherings.
Beyond removing the 250 person limit imposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, McFadden’s ruling also effectively raised the capacity limit applied to such gatherings to 40%. Under Bowser’s previous directive, worship gatherings in Washington were limited to 250 persons or 25% of the facility’s capacity, whichever was fewer.
While houses of worship in Washington are still required to practice social distancing, McFadden’s ruling will allow churches there to welcome hundreds of additional worshippers to their services. Coming just ahead of Easter, the loosening of such burdensome restrictions is certainly welcomed news.
Throughout the pandemic, the courts have provided an effective backstop for religious freedom protections. As Mark Rienzi, President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said, “Most of the country has now stopped discriminating against religious worship — either losing in court or voluntarily changing the law — because there wasn’t evidence that worship was more dangerous than many other allowed activities.”
This ruling from McFadden is one more positive step in the fight to defend religious freedom.
Scotland’s churches to open immediately
Judge Lord Peter Braid in Edinburgh recently ruled that the mandatory closure of churches in Scotland was unlawful and ordered that houses of worship in Scotland be allowed to open immediately. The ruling came after a group of 27 church leaders in Scotland “launched a judicial review at the Court of Session” making the case that the country’s government had exceeded its authority by closing churches in response to the pandemic.
Noting the complexity of protecting both the right to worship and public health and safety, Lord Braid said, “I have not decided that all churches must immediately open or that it is safe for them to do so, or even that no restrictions at all are justified. All I have decided is that the regulations challenged in this petition went further than they were lawfully able to do, in the circumstances which existed when they were made.”
Even so, the ruling is a significant victory for Christians in Scotland who have been denied the right to gather for worship. Christians in Scotland and elsewhere recognize the very serious nature of the threat posed by COVID-19. At the same time, the Christian worship gathering is much more than a recreational activity for believers. It is both a command of our Lord and vital spiritual practice, the absence of which does actual harm. Lord Braid affirmed as much in his ruling, “It is impossible to measure the effect of those restrictions on those who hold religious beliefs. It goes beyond mere loss of companionship and an inability to attend a lunch club.”
We celebrate this victory with our brothers and sisters in Scotland as they once again gather together for worship.