The leader of a Central church who's defied Louisiana crowd-size limits aimed at quelling the coronavirus outbreak vowed Tuesday to continue public religious services as he emerged triumphant from Parish Prison to cheering followers after his arrest on an aggravated assault count.

Standing in the road in front of the jail, the Rev. Tony Spell told a few dozen members of his Life Tabernacle Church awaiting his release that he had an inalienable right from his Creator to assemble with his flock and practice his faith, regardless of what Gov. John Bel Edwards says.

"I cannot give up those rights," Spell said to shouts of "Amen" as sheriff's deputies looked on from a distance. "God forbids me to give up those rights. I will not give up my right to have church. I will not give up my right to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Edwards last month declared a public health emergency and signed an order limiting gatherings to 50 people. The Central city police have said the church has had more than 100 attend Spell's worship services, though the pastor says he's been bringing in more than 1,000.

The governor is trying to limit the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 1,400 in Louisiana, including one known to be a Spell congregant. Spell says the crowd-size restriction is unconstitutional and an attack on religion.

A church lawyer has also contracted the virus, though it's not clear how. State health officials have said they would not investigate whether there was a coronavirus cluster at the church because it does not provide health-care services.

Spell was cited last month on six misdemeanor infractions for violating the state's emergency limit on crowd sizes. The aggravated assault charge involves an allegation that he backed a church bus toward a protester Sunday; an incident captured on video. Spell maintained his innocence Tuesday of the count.

Authorities have said other religious congregations in East Baton Rouge Parish have found alternatives to in-person gatherings, such as online streaming, but on Tuesday outside the jail, Spell urged other Christians across the nation not to be bowed by the state's restrictions on religious gatherings.

"You don't let anybody take your rights to go to church," he said to more "Amens" at the impromptu rally and religious service. "You don't let anybody take your rights to assemble. You stand strong."

Before Spell's release on $5,000 bail midday Tuesday, members of his congregation gathered closely together in the jail parking lot, without masks or other protective equipment, as they sang, danced and clapped in synchronicity to uptempo Gospel songs with chorus lines like "Jesus saves" and "Scripture said it." 

Families were among the faithful who arrived at the jail on Spell's fleet of church buses, including young children who watched the prison exit for signs of their minister. Youths lined up along a yellow metal parking barrier. 

Central Police officers had obtained an arrest warrant Monday against Spell over accusations that he had nearly hit a protester outside his church on Hooper Road Sunday. They say video shows Spell backing a church bus used to shuttle congregants on Sunday afternoon and stopping short of hitting a 39-year-old protester standing on the road's shoulder. 

Spell had planned to hold a news conference at his church Tuesday morning before he was going to turn himself in to police officers.

At the last moment, the news conference was switched to the Central Police station and a convoy of school buses with congregants who had showed up at the church earlier on Tuesday to support Spell during the planned news conference followed him and other church leaders to the station.

But when Spell arrived at the station, officers arrested him before the media event could begin.

Spell told his followers outside the parish jail later on Tuesday that he "was led into a trap" and "a half-a-dozen officers handcuffed me, put me in the back of the car and booked me into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison."

In a news conference before Spell's release, Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said that Spell's attorney, Joe Long, moved the news conference to the police station but officers were prepared to make the arrest when Spell arrived.

"I guess he wanted to do a press conference, but we weren't here for a press conference," Corcoran told reporters.

Corcoran said that the reason officers surrounded Spell was that when he arrived, he kept walking away from the officers as they moved toward him in the parking lot next to the station.

"So we had to walk a little faster, and we took him into custody," he said.

Corcoran said Long had wanted officers to arrest Spell at the church but said that officers weren't going there for Spell to, "I say, showboat in front of the camera."

"We have a job to do," he said.

Central police have issued an arrest warrant for one of Spell's congregants also, Nathan B. Thomas, who has been accused of a similar near-miss with a protester. Thomas was expected to turn himself in with Spell, but hadn't done so early Tuesday. He was seen outside the jail Tuesday waiting for Spell.

Thomas is accused of trying to hit a protester with his personal vehicle on Sunday evening, Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said. 

"We'll arrest him first chance we get," Corcoran said.

Trey Bennett, 39, of Central, said he has been protesting the church holding services for the past few weeks amid worries that congregants could be unknowingly spreading the coronavirus within the community, waving signs outside that read: "Coronavirus incubator. Do not enter. You may die."

While holding his protest Sunday from the shoulder of the road, he said, he thought Spell was attempting to turn the bus around in the driveway when he saw it accelerate backward in his direction, stopping only a few feet from where he was standing.

"I hope they weren’t honestly trying to kill me," Bennett said. “He was going back pretty fast.”

Corcoran said Tuesday that Bennett was in the public right of way, not on church property, and has not appeared to violate any laws with his protests.

Reached by phone Monday evening, Spell said protesters have used vulgar language and gestures each time he and the congregants come and go from the church — claims Bennett denies.

"What would you do?" Spell said Monday evening. "You'd take your foot and stick his face in. You can quote me on that," he said before abruptly hanging up the phone.

Bennett said he plans to continue protesting the church holding large gatherings, despite Sunday's incident.

On Monday, Long, who is Spell’s civil and criminal defense lawyer, said videos of the incident show that the pastor wasn’t trying to run anyone over with the bus and didn’t come close to the complainant.

“Any fair viewing of the video will clearly exonerate Pastor Spell,” Long said. 

Long said the video shows the protester never moved as the bus was backing up, suggesting that any person in fear for his or her life would move to avoid the vehicle. In actuality, the video shows that Bennett did start to step backward just before the bus halted suddenly.

Long asserted the arrest warrant for aggravated assault is “just a brazen attempt by the Central Police to shut down the church because they have not been able to shut down the church in other ways.”

Corcoran, the police chief, had a different take on the video Tuesday: "I'm quite sure that everybody has seen the video that was out on the news, and it's pretty obvious."

Spell's stand has come as one of his church congregants died from the COVID-19 respiratory illness tied to the virus and another lawyer tapped to represent the church in an expected civil court battle against the state's order was hospitalized because of the virus.

It's not clear where either man contracted the virus.

Chief Corcoran also said Spell was booked Tuesday on outstanding traffic warrants out of East Baton Rouge Parish and Zachary.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.