Supporters gather outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church appears in court after he was arrested for holding Sunday services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Stony Plain, Alta., on Wednesday Feb. 24, 2021. A U.S. senator wants Canada investigated for violating religious freedom over the arrests of Coates and another Alberta pastor accused of flouting COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

U.S. senator wants Canada on religious freedom watch list over pastor COVID arrests

EDMONTON — A U.S. senator has asked that Canada be investigated for violating religious freedom over the arrests of Alberta pastors accused of flouting COVID-19 restrictions.

In a letter released Thursday, Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asked his country’s Commission on International Religious Freedom to consider putting Canada on its special watch list.

“I am troubled that our Canadian neighbours are effectively being forced to gather in secret, undisclosed locations to exercise their basic freedom to worship,” Hawley wrote.

“Frankly, I would expect this sort of religious crackdown in Communist China, not in a prominent western nation like Canada.”

Hawley refers in his letter to the arrests of Alberta pastors James Coates and Tim Stephens.

Coates spent a month in the Edmonton Remand Centre after he violated a bail condition not to hold church services that officials said were ignoring COVID-19 measures on capacity limits, physical distancing and masking. He was released March 22 after pleading guilty and was fined $1,500.

Coates, who is a pastor at GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, has argued provincial regulations meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 infringed on his and his congregants’ constitutional right to freedom of religion and peaceful assembly.

Earlier this month, a judge ruled his religious freedoms under the Charter were not violated.

Stephens remains in remand after being arrested last week following repeated public complaints over an outdoor service that officials say broke public health orders. Calgary police and Alberta Health Services allege that Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church chose to keep holding services without respecting orders on physical distancing and capacity limits, even after his church had been twice ordered closed.

Litigation director Jay Cameron of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which is representing Stephens, has accused Alberta Health Services in a statement of being “engaged in an intentional act of public deception and abuse of authority in arresting pastor Stephens and others.”

The U.S. commission lists three requirements to declare that a country oppresses religious freedom. It says the oppression must be systematic, ongoing and egregious. Any two of those is enough to be placed on the special watch list. Countries already on the list include Afghanistan, Egypt, Cuba and Turkey.

A commission spokesperson said the agency is aware of Hawley’s letter and is “looking into it.”

A spokesman for Alberta Justice said the department couldn’t comment on Hawley’s accusations because the matters are still before the courts.

Hawley is a longtime supporter of former U.S. president Donald Trump. He gave a clenched-fist salute to the hordes outside the Capitol as he arrived on the day of the Jan. 6 riots to press his challenge of the presidential election results.