Louisiana Senate committee passes resolution that would protect clergy who defy emergency orders

By: - May 25, 2021 5:10 pm
Pastor could avoid criminal charges if resolution passes

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)

Clarification: The story and headline of this story have been edited to reflect that the proposed resolution may not benefit Pastor Tony Spell as his attorney asserted in a previous committee meeting.The resolution does not have a retroactivity clause and its sponsor says he doesn’t intend it to be retroactive. 

A resolution that would suspend criminal penalties for clergy who violate emergency orders advanced out of the Senate Judiciary C Committee Tuesday without any lawmaker objecting to it. Though the proposed suspension would last from the day the resolution is adopted until the 60th day following the final adjournment of next year’s 2022 Regular Session, Jeff Wittenbrink, an attorney who represents Pentecostal Pastor Tony Spell testified earlier this month that the legislation is “necessary” to protect his client and other pastors because they can still be prosecuted for previous violations of COVID-19 restrictions.

Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in East Baton Rouge Parish made national headlines around the country after he disobeyed and publicly mocked the COVID-19 restrictions Gov. John Bel Edwards imposed during the height of the pandemic. 

House Concurrent Resolution 5, sponsored by Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil City), proposes to suspend any criminal penalties imposed on pastors and other clergy by COVID-19 proclamations or emergency orders for violations “related to the free exercise of religion.”

Spell, who claimed the Democratic governor disliked him for being a Republican, repeatedly held indoor services with crowds in the hundreds and gave numerous media interviews making light of the seriousness of the pandemic, despite one of his congregants reportedly dying from the virus. Spell called the coroner’s determination “a lie.”

Spell was eventually given summonses for six misdemeanor offenses for allegations that he violated a 10-person cap on in-person gatherings. Edwards put the restrictions in place for several weeks in order to try to contain the state’s initial COVID-19 outbreak at a time when little was known about how the virus spreads. In a separate incident Spell was booked with assault for allegedly driving a church bus toward a man protesting his church. 

At a May 5 House Criminal Justice committee hearing where McCormick’s resolution passed on a 7-4 vote, Wittenbrink said the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to rule on Spell’s request for a temporary injunction because at that time the governor changed his order “almost immediately after we filed our lawsuit.” Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) asked Wittenbrink if it weren’t the case that the resolution “would be meaningless” if the governor changes his emergency declaration again. (The state listed all restrictions on indoor gatherings Wednesday.)

“No, no, sir,” Wittenbrink responded. “These criminal prosecutions can still be made. That’s why they want to remove them. The criminal prosecution for violating the governor’s order can still be done, and so that’s the reason why this is necessary.”

However, at Tuesday’s meeting, Sen. Franklin Foil (R-Baton Rouge) asked, “Just to make clear this is prospective: going forward, This is not retroactive?”  McCormick answered, “That’s correct.”

The bill would apply to any criminal penalty or restriction under Title 14 of Louisiana’s criminal statutes, Title 29 of the state’s emergency order statutes, or any other title or code of Louisiana’s revised statutes. Also, a “two year time limitation on prescription would apply to any violation thereof.”

McCormick, who has attended Spell’s church, introduced legislation last year that tried to carve out immunity for church officials holding services in violation of emergency health restrictions. That bill passed the House but died in a Senate committee.

In his second attempt, McCormick has taken a softer approach. Rather than giving immunity to a particular group of people, he is instead proposing a suspension of pandemic-related violation penalties and only for a limited time. Also, by introducing the legislation as a resolution instead of a bill, McCormick’s proposal will bypass the governor, who could veto a bill proposing such a suspension.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, Will Hall with Louisiana Baptists described McCormick’s resolution as an instrument to “de-escalate” conflicts between churches and government authorities. He mentioned a situation in Greenville, Miss., where churchgoers who attended a drive-in service during the pandemic were fined $500 for violating the mayor’s curfew order.

McCormick quotes Scripture in his legislation, stating the Louisiana Constitution and the U.S. Constitution protect the religious liberty of pastors and other clergy “so that they can ultimately succeed if they follow the instruction found in the Holy Bible in Hebrews 10:25 not to engage in ‘forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.’”

In March, the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office offered Spell a plea deal that would have allowed him to plead no contest to one of the misdemeanor charges in exchange for the five other charges being dropped, but Spell rejected the deal, according to the Advocate. His assault charge is a separate case that remains pending. He has pleaded not guilty to that charge.

Spell has challenged Edwards’ emergency orders in both state and federal courts, arguing they infringe on his First Amendment right to religious liberty, but the courts have so far declined some of Spell’s motions or have ruled in favor of the governor.

Meanwhile, the pastor continues to make news. In April, he live-streamed himself calling the virus a “scam” and telling his parishioners not to get the COVID-19 vaccines. According to a CNN Newsource/WKRC report, Spell also reiterated election conspiracy theories that have been widely debunked.

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Wesley Muller
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.

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