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Pastor Tony Spell, center, talks about the court hearing as his supporters stand behind him, outside the 19th Judicial District courthouse Monday in Baton Rouge. The charges were not dismissed.

Prosecutors on Monday offered a plea deal to Central pastor Tony Spell, who last spring was cited for violating the governor’s restrictions on crowd sizes when he held multiple large services during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Spell, the preacher at Life Tabernacle Church, was charged with six counts of violating Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mandate aimed at blunting the spread of the virus. At the time, little was known about how it spread within communities and Edwards declared a public emergency in an effort to control it.

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office offered a plea deal during a Monday court hearing that would allow Spell to plead no contest to one of the misdemeanor charges in exchange for the five other charges being dropped.

District Attorney Hillar Moore said he doesn't expect Spell to take the deal and is anticipating the matter going to trial.

Jeff Wittenbrink, Spell's lawyer, said they are awaiting an opinion from the state’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the governor’s order, which at the time limited crowd sizes to 10 people, was constitutional.

“We’ve got to follow it all the way out," he said.

Even though a no-contest plea doesn't require a person to admit guilt, it eliminates paths to appeal criminal charges.

While the pandemic was intensifying in the state last year, Spell set up several showdowns with authorities by holding several services that drew hundreds of worshippers at the Hooper Road church.

Separately, Spell also faces an assault charge after authorities said he nearly backed into a man with a school bus as he was protesting outside of the church along the road.

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That case remains pending, and he has pleaded not guilty to that charge. 

Spell has argued Edwards' restrictions are infringements on constitutional protections to freely exercise religion, and he has sought relief in state and federal courts, which have either declined to take up the matter or ruled in favor of the governor.

Though his challenges have been unsuccessful, recent rulings — including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last November ruling preventing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from imposing restrictions on religious services — may see courts rehear cases that weren’t taken up.

Since filing challenges to the governor’s orders, Edwards relaxed restrictions on crowd sizes, prompting the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to find that one of Spell’s challenges was no longer relevant.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year declined to hear the case months after the lower court's decision.

Others have filed similar lawsuits, and state and federal courts have largely ruled Edwards has the authority to impose certain restrictions during an emergency.

Spell hasn't appeared in any of his in-person court hearings because of courthouse officials require that masks be worn, and he refuses. Supporters and members of his congregation have often accompanied the pastor outside of the downtown courthouse on the days he's had hearings.

He is set to return to court in June.


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad