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Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell stands in front of his congregation members and media gathered outside East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, after he was arrested, booked then released on bond, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Spell, who has defied the prohibition of large gatherings put in place because of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic and continued to hold services, was arrested on a Tuesday on allegations he tried to hit a protester Sunday with one of his buses. ORG XMIT: BAT2004211233203890

A Central pastor who has defied emergency orders during the coronavirus outbreak by holding religious services has filed a lawsuit accusing state and local officials of threats and harassment.

The Rev. Tony Spell, of Life Tabernacle Church, also claims he was subject to unwarranted surveillance, including the tapping of his phone by unnamed parties; had his church's water temporarily cut off until complaints got them restored; and was the subject of disparaging comments by public officials.

Spell and his church made those allegations and others in a new civil rights lawsuit brought against Gov. John Bel Edwards, Central Mayor David Barrow, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran and 19th Judicial District Judge Fred Crifasi.

Spokespeople for several of the defendants denied Spell's accusations.

Spell claims cameras "were installed across the road from the Church" and from the dining room window of his home "to view those coming and going." He also claims that he has been followed.

"Agents of law enforcement followed Pastor Spell everywhere he traveled," the new suit alleges.

Spell's home is the church parsonage and sits next to his church off Hooper Road.

Filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, the suit was brought by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and his local counsel, Baton Rouge lawyer Jeffrey Wittenbrink.

Quoting an array of Bible passages, Spell's suit claims the emergency orders limiting his services to no more than 10 people and his subsequent citation over allegedly breaking them were a violation of his and his congregation's right to free speech, free exercise of religion and other bedrock Constitutional protections.

The suit goes on to allege that the harassment and state restrictions unfairly single out his and other religious organizations with greater limits than are necessary while business deemed "essential" during the viral outbreak are open to far larger crowds with little effort to enforce social distancing.

"If Pastor Spell told his congregation to meet at Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Walmart, then he apparently would not have been violating the Governor's orders, but since he told them to meet at Life Tabernacle Church, he is facing fines and possible imprisonment," the suit claims.

The suit asks a federal judge to bar Edwards and law enforcement officials from enforcing the order or from enforcing the special conditions of Spell's bail that call for him to comply with the order.

Spell is also seeking compensatory, nominal, punitive, and other damages.

The first step in trying to block enforcement would be through a temporary restraining order. U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson held a status conference Friday afternoon and gave the defendants until Tuesday to respond. Wittenbrink said a hearing could happen later next week.

Though Edwards recently extended the stay at home order through May 15, he is expected to announce Monday how those requirements might be lessened afterward. Those changes would reopen businesses and public spaces but restrict occupancy and require social distancing.

Matthew Block, executive counsel for Edwards, was on the call, Wittenbrink said, and informed the judge that the governor's announcement on Monday could make a difference in the case. Wittenbrink said he would have to see what the governor announces but any of that won't change what has happened to Spell and the church so far.

Shauna Sanford, spokeswoman for Edwards, said Friday he hasn't had time to review the suit yet to offer a comment.

When asked, Corcoran, the Central Police chief, disputed that his officers were video-recording the church, following Spell or tapping his phones.

"I have no clue where he's come up with that his phones were tapped," Corcoran said.

Casey Rayborn Hicks, spokeswoman for Gautreaux, said the Sheriff's Office does not have authority to tap telephones and has not had deputies following Spell. 

Hicks also disputed a claim in the suit that the sheriff had threatened Spell with arrest if he persisted with religious services.

The sheriff did speak with Spell twice in March, Hicks said. The second time, he and former legislator and Christian right figure Tony Perkins met with Spell personally to ask him to comply with Edwards' order. The sheriff told him the governor would prefer to have no police action and had hoped Spell would do what is best for the community.

"At no time during these conversations did Sheriff Gautreaux threaten Pastor Spell," Hicks added.

Anderson Dotson, a city-parish attorney, said policy prohibits commentary on pending litigation but said the mayor-president will be vigorously defended in court.

The suit also accused Judge Crifasi of telling Spell and one of his attorneys that he couldn't preach to his church assembly due to his bail conditions. Mary Olive Pierson, Crifasi's attorney, disputed that claim, adding judges have absolute legal immunity in this kind of litigation.

Spell has been under home confinement since he violated the conditions of his bail following his arrest last month on allegations he tried to hit a protester in front of his church with a school bus while the minister was backing up the vehicle.

One condition required him to comply with Edwards' stay-at-home order, which limits public gatherings to no more than 10 people, which Spell promptly defied again with a service.

Transcripts of the April 24 hearing do quote Crifasi discussing that preaching to an assembly would be prohibited under the governor's order but only when it can't be done within the order's 10-person limit.

The judge urged Spell to find other ways to reach his flock: "Pastor Spell, you can preach the word of God as long as you want as often as you want," the transcript says.

Spell and his congregation have resisted Edwards' social distancing and other restrictions since they were enacted in March. Central police have cited him with six counts of violating those orders.

Spell has claimed that in-person services are an integral part of his church's beliefs and financial well-being. Most other churches in the state have complied with the orders and held online or drive-in services.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.