The defiant pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, who has said the power of faith and the spiritual need to gather in person trumped Louisiana's attempts to restrict the size of crowds during the spread of the novel coronavirus, acknowledged Thursday that the global pandemic had reached inside his stained-glass chapel off Hooper Road. One of his congregants is dead and a lawyer tapped to fight for his right to pack the church is ill. 

A 78-year-old parishioner of the Central church died Wednesday from the virus, though the Rev. Tony Spell called the coroner's determination "a lie." A 59-year-old Baton Rouge man hired to represent the church has been hospitalized since Tuesday due to his own infection from the virus.

It's not clear where either man contracted the virus, and, as of midday Thursday, the state had not opened a cluster investigation into the church, the governor said.

Harold Orillion, an East Baton Rouge Parish resident, died Wednesday from the COVID-19 respiratory illness tied to the virus, one of six Baton Rouge deaths that day, according to a listing from Dr. William "Beau" Clark, the parish coroner.

The church lawyer, Jeff Wittenbrink, said he attended two events at Life Tabernacle Church — an April 2 news conference and an April 5 church service, and has been at Baton Rouge General since Tuesday after progressively worsening conditions, including a high fever and persistent cough, he said.

Wittenbrink said he wasn't feeling poorly during the church services and doesn't know where he caught the virus, but added that he hadn't been careful enough during his outings in the public in recent weeks.

"I went to Albertson's twice a day. I went to Sam's. I went to Walmart. I went to Lowe's. I used the gas pumps. I mean I just wasn't careful. God knows where I got it. The bad thing is I might have spread to somebody. I feel bad about that, " he said.

Wittenbrink was on oxygen but recovering after testing positive and being admitted to the hospital, he said.

As of Thursday, 1,914 people in Louisiana were hospitalized because of the virus; 1,156 have died. Of the dead, nearly 64% were 70 or older. Twenty percent of those infected in Louisiana are between 50 and 59 years old, the largest share of any age group, state data show.

Clark's listing of East Baton Rouge deaths did not disclose that Orillion was a member of Spell's church, but three sources told The Advocate that Orillion had ties to Life Tabernacle. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss a link between the man and the church.

Spell, the church's pastor, did not return messages left Thursday about Orillion after the coroner released his death information following a public records request from The Advocate. Spell later in the day confirmed to television stations WAFB and WVLA that Orillion was a parishioner in good standing.

Spell also disputed that Orillion's death was due to the virus, despite the coroner's determination. "That is a lie," Spell told WAFB.

Attempts to reach Orillion's wife and his living siblings in the Baton Rouge area were either unsuccessful or ended with no comment.

The state Department of Health has said it identifies a cluster as "two or more cases that appear to be connected." During a midday news conference Thursday, Gov. John Bel Edwards was asked if the church was being investigated as a possible coronavirus cluster.

"I am not aware of any investigation," he said.

At the time, news of the lawyer's hospitalization was only just appearing online. Since then, Orillion's death has also come to light.

A Health Department spokesman didn't immediately return a call and email for comment Thursday about the church in light of the latest developments.

Spell's fight against the Edwards' order, along with a handful of other religious leaders nationally against similar restrictions, has attracted worldwide attention. He has been charged with six misdemeanor counts of violating Edwards' orders.

While many houses of worship have converted to online services, Spell maintains that in-person services are essential to his congregation's faith and financial well-being. 

The conflict pits the bedrock rights of religious freedom and free assembly against the government's imperative to protect the public from a highly infectious and deadly virus without a known vaccine that has stressed medical facilities.

Spell, who has faced criticism over his stand, has made several provocative comments about the virus and the resulting controversy, including telling TMZ that true Christians do not mind dying from the virus but from "fear living in fear, cowardice of their convictions."

Wittenbrink is serving as the local counsel for Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice and ex-Senate candidate who is helping represent Spell and his church in an expected legal fight over Edwards' social distancing restrictions.

Spell introduced Wittenbrink before he spoke briefly to the pastor's congregation during the April 2 news conference and rally discussing the church's planned legal fight with Moore's aid. Moore also attended the event and spoke.

Spell, who has claimed Edwards' restrictions are an attack on religion, said Thursday that he knew Wittenbrink had contracted the coronavirus, has been speaking with him and was praying for him. Spell said he has informed his congregation about Wittenbrink's illness. Spell's comments came before news of Orillion's death came to light, and the pastor didn't return subsequent attempts to reach him. 

When asked, Wittenbrink said his illness hasn't changed his determination to represent Spell and the church or his belief in the righteousness of their cause.

"I'm very proud of Pastor Spell. I think he's one of the few people who understands we shouldn't just throw away our civil liberties without a fight just because there's some kind of crisis going on," Wittenbrink said. 

He said that during the services he attended at Spell's church, members practiced social distancing measures, including having their temperatures taken, hand-sanitizing and spacing among those inside. Family groups sat together.

Spell added that images circulating recently on Facebook that appear to show parishioners in his church in close contact were from three years ago. 

Staff writers Lea Skene and Jacqueline DeRobertis contributed to this story.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.