Louisiana Evangelical Pastor Loses Again In Court Fight To End Virus Restrictions

Pastor Tony Spell argued that religious liberty allows him to pack his church during the COVID-19 pandemic. A federal judge shot that argument down.

A federal judge has thrown out a Louisiana pastor’s lawsuit seeking to worship without crowd-size restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, insisting that Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ attempts to curb the spread of the disease did not infringe on the pastor’s religious liberty.

Pastor Tony Spell, who gained nationwide notoriety this spring for repeatedly refusing to heed his state’s COVID-19 rules for churches, had filed a lawsuit in May seeking monetary damages and an end to all restrictions on worship services. But U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson wasn’t convinced ― deciding on Tuesday to dismiss Spell’s federal claims with prejudice, which means they can’t be raised again in that court again.

Spell was “clearly incorrect” in claiming that any restrictions on the right to gather violate the U.S. Constitution, Jackson wrote.

“No federal statute or constitutional provision requires that this Court order the state of Louisiana to permit Plaintiffs to hold services at 100% capacity— the relief Plaintiffs request ... — in the middle of an evolving pandemic that has killed well over a 1,000,000 people world-wide,” the judge wrote.

Spell, a Pentecostal preacher who leads Life Tabernacle Church in the small city of Central, has had numerous run-ins with the law after Edwards began issuing a series of restrictions on gatherings to curb the spread of the virus in March. Spell has been slapped with misdemeanors and fines for continuing to draw hundreds to his worship services. He remained adamant about worshipping in person even after a 78-year-old member of his congregation died from complications related to COVID-19 in April.

After being accused of threatening to run over a man protesting his ongoing church services, Spell was briefly placed on house arrest ― a condition he openly flouted by showing off his ankle monitor while preaching at church.

Spell’s lawyer, Jeffrey Wittenbrink, told Louisiana newspaper The Advocate that his client plans to appeal Jackson’s decision.

Edwards’ most recent coronavirus order, issued in September, allows churches to operate at 75% capacity.

Tony Spell is the pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana.
Tony Spell is the pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the government’s ability to place certain restrictions on houses of worship during the pandemic. Citing a religious liberty case decided by the Supreme Court in May, Jackson pointed out that worship services are by nature different than grocery stores and laundromats, since they allow people to congregate in large groups in close proximity for extended periods of time. Edwards has always treated worship places similar to “comparable” secular institutions. In fact, religious institutions have often been given privileges not available to other secular businesses, Jackson argued.

Jackson also referred to a Supreme Court case from 1905 that upheld a Massachusetts city’s authority to require that its residents be vaccinated from smallpox.

“The overwhelming consensus of courts throughout the United States reveals that reasonable restrictions on religious gatherings comply with Constitutional standards,” Jackson wrote.

Shauna Sanford, a spokeswoman for the governor, called Spell’s lawsuit “baseless” and “unfortunate.”

“It was a decision based on the science and the data and very necessary in order to protect the health and safety of our people and our state,” Sanford told the Advocate.

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