Louisiana Supreme Court drops charges against pastor who held church during COVID lockdown

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On Friday, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of Tony Spell, the Central pastor who continued to hold church services in defiance of restrictions Gov. John Bel Edwards imposed to stop the spread of COVID.

The justices overruled lower courts, deciding that the restrictions on gatherings at churches and the stay-home mandate imposed were unconstitutional.

The court ordered the charges against Spell be dropped.

In the opinion, the court wrote, “In this criminal proceeding, we find certain provisions of two executive orders, as applied to defendant, violate his fundamental right to exercise religion, do not survive strict scrutiny, and are thus unconstitutional.”

Reverend Tony Spell took over the state building room where BESE was meeting and spoke to those attending Wednesday, August 18, 2021.
Reverend Tony Spell took over the state building room where BESE was meeting and spoke to those attending Wednesday, August 18, 2021.

Attorney General Landry praised the majority for upholding the constitutionally-protected right to worship.

Pastor: Louisiana pastor holds services despite gatherings ban

“Once again, this governor’s overreach has been defeated in court. While it is unfortunate that it took almost two years, I am appreciative that John Bel’s unconstitutional actions have been halted by the court. This is a victory for the separation of powers and our free exercise clause. What’s more: it is a great highlight of John Bel’s hypocrisy — punishing prayer service but not food service at a mall.”

The majority found that secular exemptions showed that religious groups weren’t getting adequate consideration when Edwards first limited gatherings to fewer than 50 people and, about a week later, tightened the limit to 10 in March 2020.

Justice William J. Crain noted that there was no evidence that “gatherings in secular venues like office buildings and airports created less risk of virus transmission than such interactions at gatherings in a church building."

Congregants arrive at the Life Tabernacle Church in Central,  Sunday, March 29, 2020. Pastor Tony Spell has defied a shelter-in-place order by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, due to the new coronavirus pandemic, and continues to hold church services with hundreds of congregants.
Congregants arrive at the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, Sunday, March 29, 2020. Pastor Tony Spell has defied a shelter-in-place order by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, due to the new coronavirus pandemic, and continues to hold church services with hundreds of congregants.

Chief Justice John Weimer wrote in his dissent that there was no evidence that churches’ religious practices were negatively affected when they held services outdoors or online.

"While the Governor disagrees with the Court’s ruling and maintains that his orders were both necessary and lawful, he is accepting of it. Each and every action Gov. Edwards took throughout the COVID pandemic was done with the goal of protecting the public’s health and saving lives," said Christina Stephens Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications and Special Projects.

Stephens also said, "Edwards has always recognized the importance of places of worship during COVID, which is why they were never closed while the public health emergency was in place." She also noted he worked closely with faith leaders throughout the pandemic and encouraged them to hold services as safely as possible to protect their congregations.

While acknowledging the progress made against COVID, she continued, "we must never forget the more than 17,000 Louisianans who have died from the virus nor those who were either hospitalized or suffered serious illness as a result of it.

Misty Castile is the editor of the Shreveport Times. You can reach her at mcastile@gannett.com or on Twitter at @castilemisty.

This article originally appeared on Shreveport Times: Tony Spell: Louisiana Supreme Court drop charges against pastor