Explainer: Should the government jail pastors for violating COVID-19 restrictions?

February 19, 2021

On Tuesday of this week, James Coates, the pastor of GraceLife Church outside the city of Edmonton, turned himself in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after violating public health restrictions related to COVID-19. According to the RCMP, Coates was arrested and charged “with two counts of contravention of the Public Health Act (PHA) and charged for failing to comply with a condition of his undertaking, under the Criminal Code.”

The conflict dates back to December when Coates and GraceLife were fined for noncompliance with public health mandates. At that time, the church was reportedly issued an official warning and instructed to “ensure people in the church are wearing face coverings when in the building, ensure members of different households keep at least two metres apart, provide [Alberta Health Services] with information about the building’s capacity and to not exceed the limit of 15 percent of total capacity at any one time.”

In spite of the warning, Coates and GraceLife have continued to hold services in defiance of the orders, specifically exceeding the 15% capacity limit. As a result, the AHS ordered the church closed in January, but the church refused to comply with the order. According to the attorney representing Coates, the RCMP met with Coates after the service on February 7, charged him for violating the PHA, and presented him with a notice of the charges the RCMP might bring against him. The church held services again on February 14. Coates was subsequently asked to turn himself into authorities, which he did on Tuesday.

At a bail hearing on Wednesday morning, Coates was set to be released from custody on the condition that he would comply with the PHA’s COVID-19 restrictions going forward. However, Coates stated that he would not abide by the conditions of his release. As a result, his bail was denied and Coates remains in custody.

As explained below, the decision to jail Pastor Coates is wrong, and the ERLC calls for his immediate release. 

What are the COVID-19 restrictions in Canada?

Government restrictions in Canada vary from province to province and are phased based on the current severity of the pandemic. GraceLife Church is in the province of Alberta, which has a population just over 4 million. 

Presently, Alberta is experiencing a decline in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. On Tuesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, reported “263 new cases . . . with 365 people in [the] hospital, and 56 in intensive care.” However, the situation was much worse back in December “when the government put in lockdown rules as it dealt with close to 1,900 new cases a day and had more than 800 hospitalized.”

Under the most recent public health orders in Alberta, houses of worship are allowed to hold: 1) drive-in worship services without restrictions provided that attendees remain in their vehicles; and 2) indoor worship services provided that attendance does not exceed 15% of the facility’s capacity according to the fire code. For services taking place indoors, masks are also required as they are at most indoor public gatherings in Alberta. 

In late January, Grace Life was cited for multiple violations by the authorities. The official notice cites the following violations:

Should Pastor Coates be in jail?

No. The government clearly has a responsibility—and God-given authority—to protect public health and safety in light of the ongoing threats of COVID-19. But nearly a year into the pandemic, jailing pastors for holding worship services is an unacceptable breach of the church–state relationship and an alarming overreach of government authority.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, the ERLC has called for church leaders and government officials to view one another as partners and allies in the fight to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Further, we have urged governments to issue guidance, rather than mandates, to churches and houses of worship. This applies to Canada, as well.

Facts on the ground, as well as risks, vary substantially from community to community. In issuing guidelines, the government better equips pastors and faith leaders to make responsible and informed decisions on behalf of their own congregations. Conversely, mandates (often) bring about unnecessary restrictions and limit the ability of the faith community to practice their beliefs and respond effectively to urgent needs.

Jailing Pastor Coates only inflames tensions and creates hostility between people of faith and government officials. And it does so at a time when trust and cooperation between civil and religious leaders are desperately needed. The government has other enforcement tools that are more reasonable given the sensitive circumstances.

What should the government do in these circumstances?

Whenever possible, opening clear lines of communication is the best path forward. The overwhelming majority of religious leaders (whether in the United States or Canada) are not interested in a public or avoidable clash with government officials. 

In many cases, issues between houses of worship and state and local governments have been resolved simply through good faith efforts to communicate with each other. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen new and important partnerships forged between church leaders and local officials in various parts of the United States. These relationships have not only eased immediate tensions, but have laid the groundwork for future partnerships to better serve these communities. We have also witnessed (and taken part) in the resolution of a number of issues of this nature spanning from minor problems with city councils to larger concerns at the state level. In the majority of these cases, efforts to communicate the concerns of local pastors to elected officials have resulted in reasonable accommodations being made.

As mentioned, government officials have a clear interest and responsibility to safeguard public health. In some cases, the highly infectious nature of the coronavirus has required governments to place limitations on public gatherings, including religious gatherings. But such limitations must be carefully considered, in ways that respect the authority and independence of religious institutions as far as possible. And whatever means government may use to enforce these measures, it should be beyond dispute that jailing pastors for noncompliance is a bridge too far.

What should Christians do in these circumstances?

Religious leaders, especially Christian pastors, have a duty to take the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. The New Testament repeatedly underscores the significance of loving our neighbors well (Lk. 10:25-37) and considering the needs of others ahead of our own (Phil. 2:4). Similarly, Christians are also charged to be in submission to civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-14) and to be good citizens who strive to live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim. 2:1-4). And in the midst of a global pandemic, the people of God should endeavor to serve and sacrifice for the sake of others.

But this submission and deference is not without limitations. As Peter said, before our duty to obey political authorities, Christians have a duty to obey God (Acts 5:29). While Christians should make every effort to obey and be at peace with civil authorities, our primary allegiance is owed to God alone. 

For at least several more months, governments at various levels will continue to balance public health concerns with various interests including religious freedom. The ERLC continues to urge churches to cooperate, where possible, with public health guidance to advance our common goal of bringing the pandemic to an end. But more importantly, the ERLC strongly condemns the RCMP’s decision to jail Pastor James Coates.

Where necessary, we encourage churches to embrace practices such as masking and distancing.  And we reject the idea that such requirements represent a significant affront to religious freedom. But there is no excuse for this inflammatory action by the RCMP. And it should be immediately remedied through his release.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24