Another judge has ruled that Gov. John Bel Edwards' effort to protect the public during a pandemic trumps a church pastor's claim that the First Amendment gives him and others the right to gather in large groups regardless of the possible danger to the community at large.

Central pastor Tony Spell went to court Monday believing 19th Judicial District Judge Eboni Johnson-Rose would void six criminal complaints against him, and asserted she "ruled against God" after failing to do so. Prosecutors allege Spell violated strict public gathering capacity limits Edwards put in place last spring as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Louisiana.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has killed 8,500 Louisiana residents. Spell faces $3,000 in fines.

Currently, though daily case numbers are far higher now than they were then, there are also vaccines and new therapies but also new viral mutations that are more contagious. Edwards’ restrictions for business and places of worship, however, are much looser. Churches can operate at 75% capacity.

As hospitalization and the death toll climbed last March and April, Spell set up several showdowns with authorities by continuing to hold services that drew hundreds of worshippers at his Life Tabernacle Church off Hooper Road. He welcomed media attention of his defiance, criticized Edwards over the restrictions as an infringement on constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion, and ultimately sought relief in state and federal courts.

He's lost on all fronts, so far.

Spell, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, faces jail time in addition to a $500 fine on each accusation that, six times last March, he violated orders limiting public gatherings to 50 and then just 10 people. The restrictions were in place when far less was known about the virus.

The pastor did not attend his criminal hearing Monday because, he said, he refused to wear a mask to enter the courthouse, which is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance promoted as a means to control the pandemic. He instead waited outside and across the street from the courthouse with a few dozen of his supporters and church members who held up signs and a U.S. flag and wore T-shirts protesting the state mask mandate.

Spell and his supporters were unmasked.

Spell asserted outside court that he had broken no laws and considered his case and an open-and-shut one that should have gone the other way. He said he planned to appeal to the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, but also believed judgment was also pending for those who worked to undermine religious liberties.

"You just ruled against God, so you get ready for the judgment of God," Spell said to the claps and affirmations of some his followers behind him. 

In a later interview, Spell urged people to stand up for their liberties and called Edwards, a Roman Catholic, a “liar,” “godless” and a "tyrant," the latter for ignoring Republicans who asked him to more quickly reopen the state's economy. 

“The governor hates Christians. If he says anything different, he’s a liar. He says all these people behind me are law breakers, and we’re not. The law-breaker’s … right over there in the Governor’s Mansion,” Spell said.

Edwards said he was pleased with the judge's ruling and that, with the pandemic continuing, wearing a mask and remaining socially distanced were the responsible approach.

"My Christian Catholic faith teaches me that we should be good neighbors to one another and that includes doing what we can to protect each other from this terrible virus," Edwards said. "The vaccine is not available to everyone at this time but masks are. The best and easiest thing that we can all do is wear one to help get us back to where we all want to be."

Inside the courthouse earlier, Spell's attorney, Jeff Wittenbrink, argued Edwards' orders unfairly and illegally singled out religious organizations for restrictions while allowing businesses like Walmart and Lowe's to operate without social distancing or masking requirements, and no gathering limits.

Wittenbrink pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had overturned gathering restrictions in New York that the plaintiffs asserted had been aimed at conservative Jewish synagogues and Catholic churches.

Those places of worship had been put in zones that limited their attendance to 10 or 25 people, though many had capacities of more than 1,000, as Life Tabernacle does.

The ruling included concurring opinions that rejected a conclusion from Chief Justice John Roberts in an earlier California case on coronavirus restrictions that a state could make distinctions among businesses that posed different levels of risk of spread — for example, between an hour or more in the church pews singing and praying versus a quick pass through the store.

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“I would suggest, your Honor, that Chief Justice Roberts has probably never stood in line at a Walmart on a Saturday, because the fact of the matter is you can stand there in a long line, with a lot of people, for a lot of time, in close contact,” Wittenbrink said.

He argued later that the state Constitution also offers greater protections for First Amendment rights than even the federal Constitution and the state law giving Edwards the power to act on emergencies limits him from taking such strong restrictions on religious liberties.

But Darrel Papillion, a special assistant to District Attorney Hillar Moore, argued that Louisiana's restrictions were applied generally, unlike New York's, and neutrally and so were distinct from the stricken New York limits.

He said that, at the time the charges were made against Spell, Edwards was responding to the early days of the outbreak when New Orleans was one of three hotspots in the nation and Louisiana was under a declared emergency.

Despite the comparisons to retailers, he argued, the rules were actually looser on places of worship than other similarly situated businesses at the time, like bars and restaurants, which couldn’t have indoor activities then.

Papillion added that the Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment can't be used as a reason to break the law, whether it be having multiple wives or smoking peyote as a religious practice.

“If a religion begins to declare that it can do whatever it wants to do, then we are no longer a nation of laws. We are a nation that is under the judgement, the decision, the intent of a man or a woman who decides they will not obey the law,” Papillion said.

Johnson-Rose agreed with Papillion's argument that the New York restrictions were factually distinct from what was before her and that a previous Supreme Court ruling, upon which a Louisiana federal court had upheld Edwards' orders last year, was still a binding decision.

District Attorney Hillar Moore welcomed the ruling and said he believed Edwards' restriction didn't have anything to do with specifically singling out religious activity.

"We think it's what the law was clearly and agree with the judge's decision. It's not personal," Moore said.

Moore's comments came shortly after some of Spell's supporters confronted him and Papillion about the ruling while they all were waiting for the elevators to arrive at the courthouse's ninth floor overlooking the state Capitol and Mississippi River.

At the time Spell was charged in early April, coronavirus cases had been surging in Louisiana, and the state saw some of the deadliest weeks of the pandemic outbreak not long after.

At least one church member had died after contracting COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new virus, and Spell's lawyer, too, was hospitalized after catching it. It isn't known where the men contracted the virus.

Spell was also arrested not long after and charged with assault when a man protesting the services said the pastor nearly backed into him with a school bus outside the church.

That case remains pending, but the court had ordered that Spell wear an ankle monitor and stay at home as a condition for his bail.

He continued to return to his pulpit and continued to preach in the weeks following, in some services lifting his pant leg to reveal the location tracking device around his ankle.

Spell was relieved of house arrest in May and also was charged with two counts of being a fugitive from justice for violating his house arrest. The case has been pending in district court with no future date set.

With Johnson-Rose's ruling on Monday, the six counts against Spell remain in place. He is set for another court proceeding in March.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.