A state district judge told a defiant Central pastor Friday that a condition of his bail from an arrest earlier this week bars him from holding in-person religious services, defense and prosecution attorneys said.

They said the Rev. Tony Spell did not clearly tell the judge whether he will continue to defy the governor's coronavirus stay-at-home order by having services at his Life Tabernacle Church on Sunday — and the judge was still weighing how to respond Friday evening.

Spell was arrested Tuesday morning and booked in to parish prison on misdemeanor counts of aggravated assault and improper backing. A protester had accused the Pentecostal preacher of nearly hitting him on Sunday with one of church's school buses along Hooper Road.

If Judge Fred Crifasi of the 19th Judicial District Court finds Spell violated his bail condition on Sunday, he could be jailed again, put in home detention or have other restrictions placed on him.

Defense attorney Joe Long said Spell told the judge during a status conference Friday morning that he had "to talk with my church leaders and pray on it."

"So that's where we are right now," Long said.

District Attorney Hillar Moore added that Spell had a deadline of 5 p.m. Friday to answer. It was extended to 5:45 p.m., but he has only responded so far with a citation from the Bible.

Crifasi has asked for a more definitive answer, Moore said.

Spell has flouted state stay-at-home and social distancing orders aimed at limiting the novel coronavirus, saying the limits violate his and his congregants' First Amendment rights to assemble and practice their faith.

Gov. John Bel Edwards issued the orders to try control virus's spread, blunt the impact on the state health care system and save lives.

One of Spell's congregants has died from the virus and another lawyer representing the church has been hospitalized from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus. It's not clear where either man was infected.

There is no vaccine or widespread immunity to the virus, health officials say. Federal officials have recommended people wear masks as a precaution when they go out in public where others will be nearby.

Spell has garnered international attention for his and his church's stand against the orders, attracting praise from some Christian groups but also plenty of criticism and a handful of regular protesters outside his church on Hooper.

Spell has disputed the accusation from the protester and was released from Parish Prison midday Tuesday to joyous followers after his wife, Shaye, posted cash bail of $5,000.

But the bail document says one condition of his release is also that he "shall refrain from any and all criminal conduct, including but not limited to strictly abiding by the all emergency orders issued by the Governor of the State of Louisiana."

Moore said his office filed a motion to have Spell's bail revoked or that he be held in contempt after he held a brief news conference on Tuesday outside the jail where he promised to hold more religious services and then held another service the same evening.

Moore and Long said they spoke with the judge by phone on Thursday and then had the conference on Friday. Long, Spell and prosecutors spoke with Crifasi on Friday to better understand how the judge interpreted Edwards' executive order.

Long said the judge made clear that he viewed Edwards' order as applying the 10-person-limit on public gatherings to large spaces like Spell's main worship area, which is around 14,000 square feet.

The judge added, Long said, that the portions of Edwards' order declaring churches as essential services and allowing people to go to them only applied to support services, such as counseling, confession or funerals.

"The court was extremely respectful of Pastor Spell and his ability to preach, acknowledged his right to assemble and practice his religion, however, he noted those rights were not absolute, particularly during these difficult and dangerous times," Moore said.

Prosecutors attended the Friday conference through online access, but Spell and Long went to the judge's chambers after some technical trouble. Crifasi limited those in his chambers to no more than nine people, Moore added.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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