Bill that would have protected defiant Louisiana pastor dies in committee

Tony Spell repeatedly flouted state’s COVID-19 restrictions

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)

A bill meant to defend a Louisiana pastor who defiantly flouted the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on crowd size died in a Louisiana Senate committee Wednesday evening. 

Tony Spell, a Pentecostal pastor in Central, was given summonses after deliberately holding church services with more worshipers than the state’s pandemic emergency regulations allowed. He was eventually booked with assault after police say he drove a church bus toward a man who was protesting the church and its pastor.

Introduced by Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil city, the original legislation stated that one could not be made “liable for criminal prosecution for assembling to exercise religious freedom during a public emergency, including public health emergencies.” That original bill also applied to civil damages, fines and penalties and was made retroactive to the date of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ initial pandemic-related emergency order in March.

McCormick told the Senate Judiciary B Committee Wednesday that he intended his legislation “to clarify what we believe to be established in the U.S and Louisiana constitutions as far as the religious right to assemble.”

Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, asked McCormick how he squared his position against the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that it was not unconstitutional for state governments to limit the number of people who could gather at a church.

“I’m not familiar with that particular case,” McCormick said.

The Supreme Court has actually ruled against churches twice since states issued emergency orders that restricted the size of worship services.  In May the court decided for the state of California in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, and in July the court decided for the state of Nevada in Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak. In both cases, the court was split 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts deciding for the states.

The committee voted 3-2 to defer McCormick’s bill, effectively killing it this session.