The pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central went ahead with an evening religious service Tuesday night just hours after city police cited him over allegations he violated a state order to limit crowd sizes during an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Pastor Tony Spell is accused of violating provisions of Gov. John Bel Edwards' emergency declaration six times over the past two weeks. Spell has ignored requests from city, parish and state leaders to suspend services at Life Tabernacle Church amid a surge in fatal coronavirus cases in Louisiana and the region.
"He will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community," Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said midday Tuesday shortly after Spell was fingerprinted and read his constitutional rights. "We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community's leaders to set a positive example and follow the law."
Spell was issued a summons, but Corcoran explained during a news conference that this action by his officers constituted an arrest, though Spell was not taken to jail.
Despite being accused of the misdemeanor offenses, which carry a maximum punishment of $500 and up to six months in parish jail, Spell announced before the Tuesday night service that he will continue to hold services.
"This is an attack on religion. This an attack on our constitutional rights. We have a constitutional right to assemble and to gather and there are no laws that I am breaking," he said earlier Tuesday, as his wife, Shaye, hugged him inside the church's main worship area.
When asked what he would do if Spell held another service, Corcoran said earlier Tuesday, "We're going to take it as we see it.”
Spell’s service did not appear to be halted Tuesday night by law enforcement, but this was no typical gathering off Hooper Road.
Close to a dozen media members observed as parishioners — children, their parents, the elderly and disabled, and young men and women — filed into the church in the fading evening light and got their temperature taken at the door.
Several congregants declined comment as they walked indoors, though one man suggested media members make an offering later on and perhaps listen in on Spell’s sermon.
Later, as music and singing could be heard inside, a top Baton Rouge-area NAACP official stood on the front lawn of the church and called on a bull horn for Spell to come outside and explain himself as onlookers sat in parked cars along the road in front of the church.
“Come on, Tony. Come on out and tell us why you’re being selfish, Tony,” shouted Eugene Collins, the Baton Rouge chapter president of the NAACP.
Three East Baton Parish Sheriff’s Office sport-utility vehicles could be seeing driving into the parking lot of the church. Officers got out and observed people entering the church for a time before leaving as night closed in and the 7:30 p.m. service had begun.
"Our assistance was requested to help with vehicles on the side of the road to help prevent traffic accidents," sheriff's office spokeswoman Casey Raborn Hicks said in a statement when asked what the deputies were doing in the parking lot.
Chief Corcoran didn’t respond to a request for comment through his dispatcher on Tuesday night.
The law enforcement officials had someone watching them.
Raymond Dennis, 50, of Bayou Goula, was in the parking lot video-recording the deputies with his cell phone.
Dennis said he wanted to see if the officers were going to stand behind officials’ promise to enforce the governor’s orders.
Even though Dennis said his own church has been conducting services online since the outbreak, Dennis, who is a health care worker and church organist, said he believes Spell had a constitutional right to speak and say what he believes.
“He should be able to worship if that’s what he chooses to do,” Dennis said. “He’s protected under the First Amendment.”
Several others watching the proceedings outside the church had different take.
Pamela Prescott, 50, of Zachary, had taken a granddaughter and a niece to watch was happening in protest of what Spell was leading his congregation to do. She said his members aren’t just from Central and were spreading out across the Baton Rouge area and wondered why the service was even happening at all.
“This is just ridiculous that they won’t stop it,” she said.
While Louisiana has seen more than 5,000 cases of coronavirus, and more than 200 deaths, Spell has ignored the potential danger to his congregation and the community by holding large public religious services. Medical experts have said that, to blunt the sharp increase in coronavirus cases and related COVID-19 illnesses that could strain the medical system, people should avoid large crowds as much as possible.
Among those also counseling Spell has been former state Rep. Tony Perkins, who has allowed Spell to join him on conference calls with the Trump administration and their response to the pandemic.
“If I thought this was an attack on religious freedom, I’d be right there with him,” said Perkins, who serves as president of the Family Research Council. “It’s a directive for the sake of public health not to meet.”
Though legal experts say law enforcement officials have authority to enforce limits on crowd size, sheriff's deputies and Central city police officers hadn't acted to halt Spell's services until Tuesday. But, in the day and a half leading up to Spell's citation, the rhetoric from Gov. Edwards, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and District Attorney Hillar Moore had notched up noticeably.
“The order is to protect everyone and not infringe on anyone's rights,” Moore said. “This is a serious, deadly emergency.”
Reached after city leaders held the midday news conference about Spell's arrest, the Pentecostal preacher said he understood the potential consequences of continuing to have public religious services but intended to go forward with additional gatherings.
Spell asserted that he is operating under his constitutional rights and under a mandate given to him by Jesus Christ, "who said do not forsake to assemble together."
Spell added that government authorities were throwing away the nation's Constitution under a "COVID hoax" that hasn't had the level of medical toll and death that, he says, experts had initially predicted would happen at this point. He called the fears about the virus a "politically motivated scheme to shut the doors on America's churches and we refuse to shut our doors."
"Yes, we're gonna have service," he added, "and if I am arrested, the second man in charge will step in. If he is arrested, the third man in charge will step in. If he is arrested, the thousands of people who are members of this congregation are gonna step in, but you can't take us all."
At the end of the mid-day interview Tuesday, Spell and other members of his church prayed over an Advocate reporter to continue providing fair news coverage of the situation.
In the Tampa Bay area, authorities arrested a pastor who had held large services in violation of the county’s ban on large gatherings.
At least one religious service in Illinois has been linked to an outbreak of coronavirus that infected more than three dozen people, according to The Chicago Tribune. State leaders in Arkansas also reported a similar outbreak that saw dozens sickened at a rural church 70 miles north of Little Rock.
Edwards, after declaring a public emergency, has directed that no one gather in groups larger than 50; the president has suggested groups no larger than 10. The governor has also issued a stay-at-home order for people who do not have essential jobs in businesses such as home construction, groceries and health care.
Most churches have complied with the orders, in Louisiana and elsewhere, accommodating parishioners by moving services and Bible studies online.
Edwards said Tuesday he was disturbed by the church continuing to hold large services.
“It’s unfortunate that a leader … would choose and make the conscious decision to violate what is a legal order which is imperative to public health,” Edwards said.
Tony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, plans an outdoor service for his church of nearly 1,200 people Sunday morning aft…