A federal judge has rejected Central pastor Tony Spell’s lawsuit claiming that the stay-at-home order Gov. John Bel Edwards implemented to stop the spread of the coronavirus was unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Spell, who drew international attention for defying the order by continuing to hold services at Life Tabernacle Church, has been released from house arrest.

Spell was arrested in April after a protestor accused him of trying to run him over with a church-owned school bus. One of the conditions of Spell’s bail was that he had to follow the stay-at-home order. But he continued to preach anyway, leading authorities to put him under house arrest and put an ankle monitor on him.

The stay-at-home order that Spell defied was lifted on Friday, which allowed churches, restaurants and other organizations to resume public gatherings, as long as they kept buildings at 25% capacity. East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said Spell has been taken off house arrest because the order was scaled back.

Spell had sued Gov. Edwards and other government leaders, arguing the stay-at-home order violated his freedom of worship and freedom of assembly. But, on Friday, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson rejected those arguments, saying Edwards has the authority to issue emergency directives reasonably tailored to severe public health threats.

"Indeed, the Supreme Court has long recognized that 'liberty secured by the Constitution' is not absolute in the face of an epidemic, but rather that a community 'has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members,'" Jackson wrote in the 13-page order.

Jackson was partially quoting the 105-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, when the nation's high court upheld the authority of the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to require people to be vaccinated from smallpox in the late 1800s.

The coronavirus has killed 2,413 people in Louisiana and is known to have infected 34,117 through Saturday.

Jackson rejected Spell's bid for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, but the pastor could still seek a permanent injunction, a more extensive legal effort.

In laying out the reasons to deny the more temporary challenges, Jackson found that Spell was unlikely to win on the merits in the broader legal dispute.

He wrote that Spell and his church seemed to be seeking "recognition of their constitutional rights in a vacuum, curiously paying no heed to the pandemic that has spread across the entire nation in a matter of mere weeks."

In addition to the 1905 Supreme Court decision, the judge cited a recent 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling over current coronavirus restrictions in Texas against abortion clinics that could factor in any federal appeal from Spell.

Jackson also found merit in the defendants' argument that the state's shift to Phase I rendered Spell's complaint and the need for a temporary restraining order moot. The judge did not take up Spell's claims for monetary damages and attorneys’ fees for the alleged violation of his rights.

Before Jackson's ruling on Friday, Spell had voluntarily agreed to dismiss East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, Central Mayor David Barrow and Crifasi from the suit.

Matthew Block, executive counsel for Edwards, said Jackson's ruling supports the legality and necessity of the stay-at-home order.

"As both a lawyer and a man of strong faith, Edwards carefully issued his Stay at Home order to put in reasonable mitigation measures that allowed for worship while still protecting the public’s health," Block said.

Jeffrey Wittenbrink, Spell's attorney, said his client plans to continue to fight the stay-at-home order in federal and state court. He argued that 19th Judicial District Judge Fred Crifasi's ruling to remove Spell from home incarceration was an important win.

"We consider that a pretty big victory," Wittenbrink said Saturday.

Wittenbrink added the one of the surveillance cameras that Spell complained of in the federal suit was also removed on Friday, a large camera set up on private property across Hooper Road from the church. 

The status of other cameras trained on Spell's home and church from utility poles or who put them there remains unclear. 


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.