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Congregants arrive for an evening service at the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Pastor Tony Spell says he will keep violating a ban on gatherings put in place to control the spread of the coronavirus because God told him to. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) ORG XMIT: BAT2003312225050063

A Central pastor who said he'd attract 2,000 people for Easter celebrations despite a state ban on large gatherings amid the coronavirus outbreak says his worship services drew about 1,345 people Sunday — though police officers stationed outside said they counted fewer than 500 for two services.

The Rev. Tony Spell, at the Life Tabernacle Church, has refused to comply with an order to limit crowd sizes to 50 people or fewer. Central city police have cited him six times, but not since early April. In the meantime, he's continued to hold services, saying Gov. John Bel Edwards has no right to restrict church attendance during a public health emergency.

In interviews heading into Christianity's holiest day, Spell had said he expected 2,000 people for Easter services. Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said he counted fewer than 300 people enter the church on Sunday for an early service and no more than 200 for a later one.

Though legal experts say law enforcement can enforce crowd size limits, the Central city police hadn't acted until late last month. Instead, the police department has been sitting outside the church counting heads.

“We’re going to document everything and send it to the district attorney’s office,” Corcoran said. He added that the church hasn’t attracted more than a few hundred people since his office began monitoring church services.

The charges filed against the Pentecostal pastor followed after weeks of city, parish, state and national leaders' requests to halt in-person services amid a rise in fatal coronavirus cases in Louisiana and the Baton Rouge region.

Despite the pending infractions carrying a $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail, Spell has told his flock to refrain from hugging and touching others outside their family and to keep a distance from one another.

“My hope is not in a vaccine for a virus, but all my hope is in Jesus,” Spell said in a live stream of Sunday's service, in which the cameras didn't pan toward the church pews.   

He has also called the governor’s order an “attack on religion” and his church and argue the governor can't limit church attendance. 

Similar legal showdowns between religious liberty and public health have arisen in states with restrictions on large gatherings. In Kansas, the state’s Supreme Court on Saturday upheld the Democratic governor’s order banning religious and funeral services of more than 10 people after Republicans on a state legislative council sought to reverse it. 

Police in Kentucky this weekend were also tracking license plates at a church’s drive-in service to issue 14-day self-quarantine orders for those attending, according to local media reports.

Corcoran expressed worries that enforcing the governor’s order by sending law officers into the church may potentially expose them to the virus if someone at the church is sick.

“Mr. Spell wants a confrontation,” the police chief said. “He wants me to go into that church.”


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad