Louisiana pastor faces criminal charges for holding services in defiance of statewide ban

A Louisiana pastor was criminally charged Tuesday for holding church services in contravention of the state’s new coronavirus restrictions.

Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in the Louisiana town of Central was charged with six counts of violating an executive order from the governor banning large gatherings, Fox News reported. Spell has vowed to continue defying the order and held services again Tuesday, despite the pending charges.

Pastor charged for holding services

The Central Police Department said that Spell was charged after being given repeated warnings about holding services for his roughly 500-person congregation. In a statement, Chief Roger Corcoran asserted that “this is not an issue over religious liberty,” according to The Hill, and rebuked Spell for endangering the public, adding:

Over the last two weeks I have worked with the Sheriff, State Police, the State Fire Marshal, Reverend Tony Perkins, and others to address this matter outside of legal action. Mr. Spell made his intentions to continue to violate the law clear.

Spell was fingerprinted at his church Tuesday after being informed of his rights, Fox News reported. The pastor held another service Tuesday evening as protesters gathered outside, according to CBS. The police said they had no plans to stop the service but will “document everything and forward everything to the district attorney.”

Louisiana is considered a new hotspot of the virus and has 6,000 documented cases, with more than 270 deaths. Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) issued a “stay at home” order in March banning all gatherings larger than 50 people.

Thorny conflict emerges

Spell is the second pastor in as many days to suffer legal repercussions for disobeying lockdown orders inspired by the deadly pandemic. A pastor in Florida, Ronald Howard-Browne, was charged Monday for holding large services at his River at Tampa Bay Church, according to NBC News.

With a majority of Americans now under some kind of lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a serious conversation about where to draw the line between public safety and the free exercise of religion. Many churches have switched to livestreaming their services, but that hasn’t mollified concerns about civil liberties or eliminated the desire to exercise them.

“We have a constitutional right to congregate,” Spell said. “We will continue.”

While some balk at defiant worshipers, others are concerned about government using crises like the coronavirus to restrict personal freedoms. In New York, the American epicenter of COVID-19 infections, ultra-liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio warned this week that churches and synagogues that defy social distancing orders may be shut down permanently, according to the Washington Examiner.

In Pennsylvania, one especially determined pastor said he plans to hold an “outdoor Easter blowout service,” the New York Post reported. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) issued a statewide stay at home order on Wednesday, according to WTAE.

Trump shifts tone

While some Americans support the lockdowns, others are convinced that the economic costs of quarantine orders are simply not justified. President Donald Trump initially took this view as well, warning that the “cure” could not be worse than the sickness itself before shifting course this weekend.

After saying it would be “beautiful” to have churches packed with congregants on Easter Sunday, Trump has extended federal social distancing guidelines until April 30, according to Business Insider. At a press conference Tuesday, Trump warned Americans to prepare for a “really rough two weeks” and projected that the virus could kill upwards of 100,000 Americans, Fox News reported.

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