During the recent bans on large gatherings coming down from many governors across the nation, most churches have chosen to close to do their part to promote social distancing.
One such evangelical pastor in Louisiana decided to challenge the ban and drew hundreds to his worship services this week- and authorities are cracking down on him.
According to a statement from Central Police Department’s Facebook page, Rev. Tony Spell, who serves as the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, is now facing six misdemeanor counts because he failed to honor Gov. John Bel Edwards’ orders regarding gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Spell, a Pentecostal preacher, has reportedly held at least six gatherings that defy the 10-person limit, WAFB reports.
The AP says that each of those gatherings mean a misdemeanor count and each one carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
The Baton Rouge suburb-based Life Tabernacle Church has bussed in hundreds of congregants from the area to attend the services, with a recent service allegedly having over 1200 people present, said the Los Angeles Times.
Central police chief Roger Corcoran released a statement announcing that he, along with state authorities, and Family Research Council President – and Trump ally – Tony Perkins to “address this matter outside of legal action.” Spell, however, has made his choice to continue to disobey very clear.
“Mr. Spell will have his day in court where he will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community… This is not an issue over religious liberty, and it’s not about politics. We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran
What does Spell have to say about all this? He claims he is being persecuted on account of his faith. He shared a video on Facebook, which has since been taken down.
The video, made by his father, Rev. Timothy Spell, shows Corcoran and another officer walking into the church to serve the summons while showing Tony Spell standing at the altar, praying for officers, the governor, and the country.
Spell prays and the officers bow their heads, “I pray that the spirit of God will reveal to [the governor] that I’m exercising my First Amendment rights and my freedom of worship and my freedom of religion rights… God help our nation today. Let them know that I’m exercising my mandate commanded to me by Jesus Christ to preach the gospel and to assemble as a people of God in this congregation.”
Spell addresses the camera once the officers leave and declares that he will continue to hold services:
“I’ve heard from God and I will continue to do what I’m doing,”Rev. Tony Spell
Louisiana’s death rate from COVID-19 continues to climb and the governor issued a shelter in place order on March 22, meaning residents may only leave their homes for essential needs. Church, or houses of worship are not listed as essential infrastructure.
As most churches are obeying the bans, some are not and are facing consequences. A Florida megachurch pastor was arrested earlier this week for holding services that defy the large gatherings ban.
While the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and laws enacted by Congress and several states help protect Americans’ right to religious freedom, these may not help pastors like Spell who are ignoring emergency orders during a pandemic.
Caroline Mala Corbin, an expert on the First Amendment’s speech and religion clauses at the University of Miami’s School of Law, explains that these are extraordinary circumstances:
“Just as courts have been willing to overrule religious objections to vaccines in order to protect people from life-endangering diseases, I can readily imagine that courts would be willing to overrule religious objections to bans on large gatherings in order to protect people from the potentially deadly coronavirus.”