Tony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, plans an outdoor service for his church of nearly 1,200 people Sunday morning after garnering national headlines over an indoor service earlier this week that had defied emergency state restrictions on public gatherings.
Spell asserted Gov. John Bel Edwards' executive order limiting gatherings to fewer than 50 people to limit the novel coronavirus doesn't apply to outdoor events, but said he has structured the religious event anyway to maintain distance among the parishioners on the church's 20-acre campus off Hooper Road.
"They cannot mandate any outdoor event," Spell claimed Friday.
Edwards' order, which was expanded Monday, applies to gatherings "in a single space at the same time where individuals will be in close proximity to one another." He also shut down casinos, movie theaters, bars and gyms, though not airports, office buildings, shopping malls or grocery stores.
The Governor's Office said it was trying to work with Spell on complying with the law, but declined on Friday to say if this latest plan does so.
WAFB first reported the clash between the pastor and public officials Tuesday night when an earlier indoor service drew more 300 people. The TV station quoted the pastor saying he and his parishioners had a right to assemble and that the "virus is politically motivated."
In other states, including California and Illinois, officials have ordered people to remain indoors and shelter in place. The mayor of New Orleans, which has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Louisiana, issued a stay-at-home order Friday.
While many Christian faiths in Louisiana have suspended services, Spell says worship together, in person, is an important to his church's beliefs and its financial well-being. He said an online service won't do.
"We have the right to assemble. I'm not trying to make a point to anybody. I'm not defying any official. We cannot function as a church without operating on a weekly basis. If we cancel services, we're not functioning," the Pentecostal preacher said in a recent interview in the church parsonage.
From the time of the early Christians, who hid in the Catacombs to practice their faith and avoid persecution by the Roman Empire, the drive to worship together has been a central aspect of the Christian faith and most worldwide religions, according to an LSU religious studies instructor.
"I think there's a very deep, fundamental sense that the community is an aid to faith," LSU instructor Kenny Smith said.
The Associated Press noted earlier this week that religious leaders elsewhere in the nation also were chafing under the similar restrictions and held in-person services last Sunday. Some prominent religious leaders close to President Donald Trump, however, were planning online-only services in the immediate future, including Dallas-area evangelical Pastor Robert Jeffress and Florida minister Paula White, Trump’s personal pastor.
But Smith, the LSU instructor, said that, while portions of the Bible point to this need to worship together, the Bible also carries an equal tradition that Christians should follow the laws of the state.
"Even if you agreed with ... Pastor Spell, that 'Yeah, Christians are called to worship together,' right? That that's got to be part of the Christian faith," Smith said. "Ultimately that together, that community is going to have to answer this question: 'Are we ever subject to the law?'"
Ed Richards, an LSU law professor who specializes in public health law, said religious organizations are subject to the law in emergencies — no different than bars or restaurants — as long the directives don't single out one faith.
Louisiana's governors carry implicit authorities, he said, predating the U.S. Constitution, to take action in public emergencies and avoid what's seen as a threat to national security.
"They aren't about the health of individual people. They're about protecting society, so this is the same kind of authority you've got to fight terrorists," Richards said.
But he added that the problem often is political one, as local officials are reluctant to use the powers of the state against religious organizations.
In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Edwards minced no words: "It is completely irresponsible for any leader to not only ignore the precautions that have been put in place but also to perhaps encourage others — including some of the most vulnerable people in our populations — to violate those measures that are in place specifically to protect them."
The parish's top prosecutor and the parish Sheriff's Office say they view that kind of legal action against a religious organization as a last resort.
Sitting in his office Wednesday evening with his wife, Shaye, Tony Spell said that he does believe the virus is a risk. But he also thinks the media coverage has been another example of news narratives, from alleged Russian election collusion to Trump's impeachment, that are aimed at harming the president.
Spell said he had fielded dozens of calls on both sides of the issue and spoken with the White House since the WAFB report a night earlier.
He also had met earlier on Wednesday with a top official in Louisiana State Police and State Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning Jr. about finding a compromise.
At the time, Spell said, they had discussed spreading out parishioners in various buildings on campus under the 50-person threshold. He also had a plan to space out parishioners delivered to his campus every Sunday with a fleet of more than two dozen school buses.
But Spell said Friday he's found a way to comply with the law but hold his service outdoors.