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Congregants arrive for an evening service at the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Pastor Tony Spell says he will keep violating a ban on gatherings put in place to control the spread of the coronavirus because God told him to. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) ORG XMIT: BAT2003312225050063

A 78-year-old man who attended a Central church that has bucked state stay-at-home restrictions has died from the illness tied to the novel coronavirus.

The East Baton Rouge Parish coroner said Harold Orillion, a parish resident, died from the COVID-19 respiratory illness on Wednesday. Three sources told The Advocate that Orillion had ties to the Life Tabernacle Church. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss a link between the man and the church.

The Rev. Tony Spell, the church's pastor, did not return messages left Thursday about Orillion after the coroner released his death information following a public records request from The Advocate. Spell later in the day confirmed to television stations WAFB and WVLA that Orillion was a parishioner in good standing.

Spell also disputed that Orillion's death was due to the virus, despite the coroner's determination. "That is a lie," Spell told WAFB.

Attempts to reach Orillion's wife and his living siblings in the Baton Rouge area were either unsuccessful or ended with no comment.

News of the death comes hours after a lawyer representing Spell and the church in an expected legal fight over the state's social distancing restrictions on churches confirmed he had been hospitalized and was on oxygen after contracting the virus.   

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.

It's not clear where Wittenbrink or Orillion actually contracted the virus. Wittenbrink said he doesn't know but that he hadn't been careful enough during his outings in the public in recent weeks.

During a midday news conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards was asked if the church was being investigated as a possible coronavirus cluster.

"I am not aware of any investigation," he said.

At the time, news of the lawyer's hospitalization was just being published online. Since then, Orillion's death has also come to light. The state Department of Health has said it identifies a cluster as "two or more cases that appear to be connected."

A Health Department spokesman didn't immediately return a call for comment about the church in light of the latest developments.

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. 

Reporters Lea Skene and Jacqueline DeRobertis contributed to this story.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.