Lawmaker who attends Tony Spell’s church pushes bill through House that favors the defiant pastor

Life Tabernacle Church repeatedly held services during height of 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)

Louisiana House lawmakers on Tuesday passed a bill that was originally crafted to support a Louisiana church pastor who dared authorities to arrest him when he publicly and repeatedly violated the state’s COVID-19 restrictions; however, legislators amended the bill by replacing virtually all of the text with new language that would prevent an emergency public health order from impeding on the right of religious assembly.

In a 66-23 vote, the House passed House Bill 9, introduced by Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City. The bill seeks to “clarify” the legislative intent of the existing statutes on emergency powers, stating that the emergency powers “were not intended to violate the religious liberty guaranteed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution of Louisiana and the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America.”

The new language is different from what was in McCormick’s original bill, though it may still provide the pastor with some reprieve from the law. McCormick, who sometimes attends Rev. Tony Spell’s Life Tabernacle Church in East Baton Rouge Parish, initially authored the bill to retroactively give the controversial Pentecostal pastor immunity from the criminal charges he faces as a result of his repeated and infamous violations of the state’s coronavirus restrictions. It also would have given Spell, and pastors in general, immunity from any lawsuits filed against him. 

Spell made headlines around the country after he refused to obey Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order in March at the height of the pandemic. The self-proclaimed prophet, who claimed the governor dislikes him because he turns Democrats into Republicans, repeatedly held indoor services with crowds in the hundreds, giving numerous media interviews and openly scoffing at the governor’s order. He also made light of the seriousness of the pandemic, despite one of his congregants reportedly dying from the virus

Spell was eventually given summonses for six misdemeanor offenses for allegations that he violated a cap on in-person gatherings of 10 people. 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 then arrested and charged with assault for driving a bus toward a man protesting his church. A state judge ordered the pastor 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.  

At a House criminal justice committee hearing last week, Spell and several members of his church testified in favor of the bill that would benefit him. While speaking, the pastor 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.

During floor debate on Tuesday, the most controversial part of the original bill — making it retroactive to March 11 — was replaced with an amendment by Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, who said several lawmakers had problems with the retroactivity. Seabaugh’s amendment revamped the language in its entirety and transformed it from a bill that would make a new law to a bill that clarifies existing law. Nevertheless, the amendment failed to fully remove the retroactivity for any charges “pending on” the bill’s effective date. That sentence reads: 

“The provisions of this Act are interpretive as provided by Civil Code Article 6 and are therefore remedial in nature and shall apply to all actions, charges, or claims pending on or filed after the effective date of this Act.”

The new bill does not appear to have any effect on social distancing restrictions and face-mask mandates, which Spell also refused to obey. In September, Spell missed a court hearing in his case because he refused to wear a mask inside the courthouse as required, claiming it infringed on his religious liberty, according to the Advocate.

HB 9 will go to the Louisiana Senate for consideration before heading to the governor for his final approval or veto.

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.