Bearing U.S. flags and protest signs, a few hundred people on Monday declared their right to practice their faith in person despite restrictions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and called for the freedom of a Central pastor who has defied those orders.

In-state and out-of-state preachers offered fiery rhetoric from the back of a pickup truck in front of the Governor's Mansion for about an hour and a half, quoting Bible verses and the U.S. Constitution, to argue restrictions barring in-person religious services are immoral and run counter to the nation's founding roots.

The Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, was placed under house arrest Saturday after a judge found the pastor would not agree with the conditions of his bail from a prior arrest that he should follow the state's emergency orders from the pandemic, including not holding large-scale, indoor, public religious services.

Spell and his congregation, who had a service on Sunday despite the house arrest, have defied Gov. John Bel Edwards' social distancing orders for weeks and continued to hold in-person services even as many other houses of faith have gone online. 

The speakers said Monday that now is the time for them and other religious leaders to stand up against Spell's confinement and the state worship restrictions, which they argued are part of broader moral decline tied to modern culture and present a risk of further erosion of constitutional rights once the pandemic has passed.

"It's time that the church stands up. We've cowered down in the corner of silence far too long, and our silence has become our compromise. Do you hear me, church," the Rev. Greg Locke, pastor of Global Vision Bible Church in Nashville, Tennessee, asked the group. "Our silence has become our compromise. I'm not against what a lot of preachers say. I'm against what a lot of preachers don't say. Somebody say, 'Amen," right here."

"Amen," some shouted.

At one point, the Rev. Joshua Feuerstein, an itinerant preacher with a large Facebook following who helped organize the event, had the other gathered ministers to raise hands in front of reporters at the protest.

"We're here to protest, but we're here to pray," Locke said.

Locke prayed for the event to spark a revival among religious leaders across the country. Some of the ministers prayed; others spoke in tongues.

The protesters, many dressed in patriotic clothing but no masks, gloves or other protective equipment, carried signs such as "Too Legit To Quit," "Free Pastor Spell," "I stand with Pastor Spell" and "Read 1st Amendment."

They also raised hands to pray for a change in Edwards' and state government's posture toward the pandemic and called out the governor for his stance.

The state orders' are aimed at limiting the virus's spread. The protest came hours before Edwards announced that statewide declines in cases and hospitalizations haven't been enough yet to allow social distancing restrictions to be eased. With minor changes, the stay-at-home order is expected to last through May 15.

Also on Monday, Judge Fred Crifasi, the 19th Judicial District jurist who placed Spell under house arrest, ordered that a hearing on whether Spell violated his bail conditions shall be set "as soon as the Court is open for such hearings" and that Spell will remain under his current bail conditions until then.

Crifasi added that he doesn't want to expose the Parish Prison population to Spell by putting him in jail.

"Any further violations properly brought to this Court's attention will be separately addressed as circumstances required and/or will be included and addressed at the anticipated hearing," Crifasi wrote.

The judge added that he doesn't have jurisdiction over people who voluntarily attend Spell's church.

The bail conditions stem from Spell's arrest last week on counts of aggravated assault and improper backing of a vehicle after he had been accused of nearly hitting a protester outside his church on April 19. Spell has maintained his innocence.

Spell was not seen at the gathering Monday, but his wife, Shaye, was there along with his father, the Rev. Timothy Spell, who also spoke to the group.

After the event was over, the protesters were fed box lunches. Servers wore rubber gloves but no masks.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.