Louisiana House will consider law to protect pastor who violated COVID-19 restrictions

Tony Spell made national headlines when he held church services early in the pandemic

Tony Spell
In this file photo from April 12, Buses of congregants arrive at the Life Tabernacle Church before Easter church services in Central, Louisiana. Pastor Tony Spell was holding in-person services despite Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' ban on gatherings of 50 or more people. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Louisiana House will take up legislation that would protect a pastor who defied state regulations by holding church services during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House Criminal Justice Committee voted 6-3 Wednesday (Oct. 7)  to send a bill aimed at clearing Pentecostal Pastor Tony Spell of charges he faces for holding church services with hundreds of people last spring when the state was under a “stay-at-home” order. Spell is the head of Life Tabernacle Church in East Baton Rouge Parish. 

The sponsor of the measure, Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, sometimes attends Spell’s church when he is in Baton Rouge on state business. 

McCormick’s legislation would make it illegal to impose criminal charges, fines or civil penalties on a person “assembling to exercise religious freedom” during a state emergency. The bill is retroactive to March 11, so it would nullify Spell’s pending charges for holding services several months ago.

“During COVID-19, some of the churches stayed open, and people didn’t attend church — some of the people didn’t attend church — just out of fear of being arrested and humiliated,” McCormick said during the hearing. 

Spell faces six misdemeanor offenses for violating a cap on in-person gatherings of 10 people. Gov. John Bel Edwards put the restriction in place for several weeks in order to try to contain the state’s initial COVID-19 outbreak. Now, that restriction is mostly lifted and religious gatherings have been taking place across the state for months.  

While trying to garner publicity for ignoring COVID-19 protocol, Spell was also separately arrested and charged with assault for driving a bus toward a man protesting Spell’s church. A state judge ordered Spell to wear an ankle monitor, stay in his house and refrain from church services as conditions of his bail for this charge, according to the Advocate.  

During Thursday’s legislative hearing, Spell and several members of his church testified in favor of the bill that would benefit him. While speaking, Spell often conflated his arrest for driving a bus toward a protestor with his other misdemeanor charges for violating the governor’s health order — which did not result in arrests.

Spell also described the governor, a devout Catholic, as “godless” for imposing the health order. 

Spell’s attorney, Jeff Wittenbrink, said he believed it was already illegal for the governor to impose restrictions that prevent church services, but that McCormick’s bill was necessary because it would clear up any confusion around the matter. 

A U.S. District Court judge in Baton Rouge disagrees with Wittenbrink’s assessment. The judge rejected a federal lawsuit brought by Spell earlier this year arguing that Edwards’ health emergency order had violated his and his church’s religious freedoms. 

The pastor and his congregants said Wednesday that they have been discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. Spell said at least eight members of his congregation had lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic because they were members of his church. A few people testified that they had been fired from their jobs or asked to take a COVID-19 test by their employers once the employers found out they attended Life Tabernacle Church. 

It’s not clear whether some of the congregation members’ refusal to abide by testing protocols or COVID-19 restrictions in general at their jobs may have contributed to their reprimands. Spell and his church members have flouted basic COVID-19 protocols in the past.

For example, Spell and his congregants missed a court hearing in his case in September because they refused to wear masks inside the courthouse as required. Spell said he wouldn’t wear a mask in the courthouse because it impinged on his religious liberty, according to the Advocate. Instead, he and his congregants stood outside the courthouse and waited for Spell’s attorney to return from the hearing inside the building. The next hearing in that state case is set for January.