Louisiana pastor who defied COVID-19 restrictions appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court

Tony Spell lost a federal court battle last week

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, asked the United States Supreme Court for a writ of injunction after losing a battle in federal court last week over COVID-19 restrictions placed on the church.

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 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 the ruling against Spell in federal court, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson cited as precedent two cases that have 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.

However, Spell said his case is different from the previous Supreme Court cases because unlike the previous cases, Spell is arguing that churches should be completely exempt from COVID-19 restrictions. 

We’re saying ‘we will never close the church if everything in this nation closes down,’” Spell said. “That’s what we’re suing on because we have a biblical conviction and a mandate from God, not the government.”

Jeffrey Scott Wittenbrink, an attorney representing Tony Spell, said he doesn’t think that the Supreme Court’s previous rulings will act as precedent and said he doesn’t think that the high court will rule against his client. 

“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.”

Wittenbrink argues that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protections of religious liberties means that churches should be exempt from COVID-19 restrictions.

Keith Werhan, a Tulane law professor who specializes in constitutional law, disagrees with Wittenbrink’s interpretation of the First Amendment. He said “religiously neutral and generally applicable laws” — or laws that do not specifically target religions or churches — do not violate the free exercise clause. 

“Religious actors are not entitled to constitutionally compelled exemptions from such laws,” Werhan said.

While the Supreme Court used those grounds to rule against churches in the past, Werhan said it is possible Justice Amy Coney Barrett replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, can turn the tides in the churches’ favor.

However, the Governor’s Office said that they are confident the Supreme Court will uphold the federal court’s decision if they decide to hear the case.

“The (COVID-19 emergency) order was based on the science and the data and was very necessary in order to protect the health and safety of our people and our state,” Shauna Sanford, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office, said. “It’s unfortunate that this baseless lawsuit was ever brought in the first place. As cases and hospitalizations rise, it’s evident that COVID-19 remains a real problem in our state.”