Another judge has ruled that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ effort to protect the public during a pandemic trumps a church pastor’s claim that the First Amendment gives him and others the right to gather in large groups regardless of the possible danger to the community at large.
Central pastor Tony Spell went to court Monday believing 19th Judicial District Judge Eboni Johnson-Rose would void six criminal complaints against him, and asserted she “ruled against God” after failing to do so. Prosecutors allege Spell violated strict public gathering capacity limits Edwards put in place last spring as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Louisiana.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has 8,500 Louisiana residents. Spell faces $3,000 in fines.
Currently, though daily case numbers are far higher now than they were then, there are also vaccines and new therapies but also new viral mutations that are more contagious. Edwards’ restrictions for business and places of worship, however, are much looser. Churches can operate at 75% capacity.
As hospitalization and the death toll climbed last March and April, Spell set up several showdowns with authorities by continuing to hold services that drew hundreds of worshippers at his Life Tabernacle Church off Hooper Road. He welcomed media attention of his defiance, criticized Edwards over the restrictions as an infringement on constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion, and ultimately sought relief in state and federal courts.
He’s lost on all fronts, so far.
Spell, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, faces jail time in addition to a $500 fine on each accusation that, six times last March, he violated orders limiting public gatherings to 50 and then just 10 people. The restrictions were in place when far less was known about the virus.
The pastor did not attend his criminal hearing Monday because, he said, he refused to wear a mask to enter the courthouse, which is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance promoted as a means to control the pandemic. He instead waited outside and across the street from the courthouse with a few dozen of his supporters and church members who held up signs and a U.S. flag and wore T-shirts protesting the state mask mandate.