CENTRAL — Alabama's fiery former chief justice declared Thursday that Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has no right to limit crowd sizes at houses of worship during an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. 

Occasionally using end-times rhetoric, Roy Moore said the constitutional rights of holy men and women outweighed those of a government trying to keep its people safe.

"We’ve got to remember the First Amendment exists because we can worship God the way want to and no government can come in and tell you you can’t assemble in church," Moore said to the applause of a few dozen Life Tabernacle parishioners.

Central city police this week cited Life Tabernacle's pastor, Tony Spell, with six misdemeanor counts of violating Edwards' order limiting crowd sizes. At most, Spell faces a $500 fine and a 90-day jail term on each count. Hours after police arrested Spell on Tuesday, the pastor conducted another church service.

Edwards and medical experts say limiting crowd sizes to 50 people or fewer can blunt the spread of the coronavirus. President Donald Trump has suggested groups be no larger than 10.

Joe Long, a Baton Rouge lawyer who plans to enroll as the church's and Spell's attorney if legal action is taken, said Edwards' order isn't the "least restrictive means" required under the law to protect against the pandemic, while grocery stores and other services the state has deemed essential aren't held to the same standard.

"As long as there are other businesses that are out in the open and have more than 10 people, this church shall have the ability to stay open and have more than 10 people," Long said.

Many churches have moved their worship services and Bible studies online.

Moore, who is licensed to practice law in Alabama, said he will seek to be admitted to practice in Louisiana and sit as co-counsel for Spell and the church. 

Moore was removed from Alabama's highest court after defying a federal judge's order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state's high court, and after being re-elected was suspended over his defiance against a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriages.

He resigned from the bench and ran for the U.S. Senate but lost to Democrat Doug Jones amid allegations Moore had sexually assaulted women and teenage girls in his 30s, charges he denied. He ran again this year and placed fourth this spring in the Republican primary.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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