The leader of a Central church who's defied Louisiana's limits on crowd sizes due to the coronavirus outbreak was issued an arrest warrant for aggravated assault after being accused of nearly hitting a protester with a church bus, authorities said.
Central Police issued the warrant Monday against the Rev. Tony Spell, the pentecostal preacher at Life Tabernacle Church. They say video they obtained shows Spell backing a church bus used to shuttle congregants on Sunday afternoon and stopping short of hitting a 39-year-old protester standing on the road's shoulder.
Spell, who is listed by his full name Mark Anthony Spell in online parish records, was not in custody Monday evening.
Trey Bennett, 39, of Central, said he has been protesting the church holding services for the past few weeks amid worries that congregants could be unknowingly spreading the coronavirus within the community, waving signs outside that read: "Coronavirus incubator. Do not enter. You may die."
While holding his protest Sunday from the shoulder of the road, he said, he thought Spell was attempting to turn the bus around in the driveway when he saw it accelerate backward in his direction, stopping only a few feet from where he was standing.
"I hope they weren’t honestly trying to kill me," Bennett said. “He was going back pretty fast.”
Reached by phone Monday evening, Spell said protesters have used vulgar language and gestures each time he and the congregants come and go from the church — claims Bennett denies.
"What would you do?" Spell said Monday evening. "You'd take your foot and stick his face in. You can quote me on that," he said before abruptly hanging up the phone.
Bennett said he plans to continue protesting the church holding large gatherings, despite Sunday's incident.
Joe Long, Spell’s civil and criminal defense lawyer, said videos of the incident show that the pastor wasn’t trying to run anyone over with the bus and didn’t come close to the complainant.
“Any fair viewing of the video will clearly exonerate Pastor Spell,” Long said.
Long said the videos show the protester never moved as the bus was backing up, suggesting that any person in fear for his or her life would move to avoid the vehicle.
Long asserted the arrest warrant for aggravated assault is “just a brazen attempt by the Central Police to shut down the church because they have not been able to shut down the church in other ways.”
Spell for weeks has defied Gov. John Bel Edwards' order limiting gatherings to fewer than 50 people, arguing that the mandate is unconstitutional and an attack on religion.
Spell was cited last month on six misdemeanor infractions for violating the state's emergency limit on crowd sizes.
Authorities have said other religious congregations in East Baton Rouge Parish have found alternatives to in-person gatherings, such as online streaming.
Attendance at Life Tabernacle Church dropped to 130 worshippers Sunday compared to about 500 at an Easter Service the previous week, according to a police headcount.
Spell has disputed the accuracy of those numbers.
The attendance drop follows the recent death of a church congregant and the hospitalization of a lawyer tapped to represent the church's battle against the state's order.
It's not clear where the men contracted the virus.
Staff writer David J. Mitchell contributed to this report.