A Baton Rouge lawyer who is part of the legal team representing a Central church and its pastor defying state social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic has been hospitalized because of the coronavirus

The lawyer, Jeff Wittenbrink, 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.

Reached in his hospital room Thursday while taking oxygen through his nose, Wittenbrink said he did not feel ill during the church events and has "no idea" how he may have contracted the virus.

"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.

As of Wednesday, 1,942 people in Louisiana have been hospitalized because of the virus.     

Wittenbrink, who is 59, is serving as the local counsel for Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice and ex-Senate candidate who is helping represent the Rev. Tony Spell and his church in an expected legal fight over Gov. John Bel Edwards' social distancing restrictions on religious gatherings.

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's fight against the 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.

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."

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 killed more than 1,100 people in the state and stressed medical facilities.

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.

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. 

Wittenbrink 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.

Wittenbrink said his illness developed over a long period of time until he started getting high fever late last week. He said he tested positive Tuesday and was admitted to Baton Rouge General.

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

Several local legal experts have said Gov. John Bel Edwards has ample authority to restrict the religious assemblies as part of other controls, but the U.S. Department of Justice has since warned that religious institutions "must not be singled out for special burdens" and recently weighed in on a case in Mississippi.

Spell and his lawyers have argued that Edwards' order holds religious institutions to strict social distancing limits while exempting some essential businesses, like grocery stores, from similar restrictions.  


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.