Judge rules against Louisiana pastor who defied state 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)

Tony Spell, the charismatic Pentecostal pastor who defied the state’s order limiting crowd sizes, lost a battle in federal court this week when a judge ruled that the state had not mistreated his church.

“The Supreme Court has always recognized that religious freedom does not act as an absolute shield against generally applicable laws,” U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson of the federal court in Baton Rouge ruled. “To the extent that Plaintiffs argue that any restrictions on their right to gather violate the U.S. Constitution, they are clearly incorrect.”

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

Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, 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 at a time when the state was limiting the size of gatherings to 10. He gave numerous media interviews and openly scoffed at the governor’s order and made light of the seriousness of the pandemic, despite one of his congregants reportedly dying from the virus

In ruling against Life Tabernacle, Judge Jackson cited as precedent two cases that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court since the pandemic began. South Bay United Pentecostal Church sued the state of California, and Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley sued the state of Nevada claiming that the state’s COVID-19 restrictions were unconstitutional.  The high court ruled 5-4 for the states in both instances with Chief Justice John Roberts casting the deciding vote.

Since then, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett has been appointed to the court, creating a 6-3 conservative majority on the high court.

Spell was eventually given summonses for six misdemeanor offenses for allegations that he hosted gatherings with more than 10 people. He was later arrested and charged with assault after authorities say he drove a bus toward a man who was protesting him and his church.

Jeffrey Scott Wittenbrink, an attorney representing the Life Tabernacle Church, said Thursday afternoon that his client already plans to appeal Jackson’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal and will, if necessary, seek a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wittenbrink said he disagrees that the Supreme Court’s previous rulings are precedent and  said he doesn’t think that the court will rule against Life Tabernacle. 

“They said they would defer to state law in these other cases, and in Louisiana, the state law is actually more on our side,” Wittenbrink said. “We’ll also bring up other arguments that the other states have not brought up.”

During the recent special session, there was an attempt to pass a bill that would retroactively benefit Spell, but that effort was unsuccessful. Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, said 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, told McCormick that the Supreme Court had already rejected claims that such restrictions are unconstitutional before Smith’s committee killed the bill in October.