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Controversial Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell talks Wednesday, May 13, 2020, just outside the front door of his residence behind the church.

The nation’s highest court turned away a legal challenge from the Rev. Tony Spell, the Central pastor who sought to shield himself from criminal charges he faces for violating Gov. John Bel Edwards’ crowd-size restrictions by holding crowded church services.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Friday night rejected Spell’s request to hear his case after lower federal courts in Louisiana ruled Edward’s coronavirus mitigation orders were either constitutional or moot after his stay-at-home order lapsed.

Spell, the pastor at Life Tabernacle Church in Central, was charged with violating the governor’s cap on crowd sizes by repeatedly holding packed church services in late March.

Not long after, the Pentecostal preacher was charged with assault after a man protesting the services said Spell nearly backed into him with a school bus outside the church.

Those charges, as well as the six counts of violating the governor’s emergency order, remain pending in East Baton Rouge Parish district court.

Spell later filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing Edwards’ order violated his First Amendment rights. State and federal courts struck down those challenges, affirming that the governor has the authority to issue such orders during a health emergency.

Alito denied the request without asking either side to respond or relaying the matter to the full court, which often happens in contentious cases.

The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear Spell’s case follows an earlier ruling this week in which a split court prevented New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from imposing restrictions on religious services.

Justices reached that ruling by a split 5-4 decision, with newly sworn-in Justice Amy Coney Barrett playing a decisive role in the decision.

In the time since Spell’s legal team asked for emergency relief from state charges, Edwards relaxed crowd size limits, promoting the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to find Spell’s challenge was no longer relevant.

Jeff Wittenbrink, a lawyer representing Spell along with former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, said the Supreme Court essentially agreed with the lower court, but added the case could be heard again in New Orleans.

“In light of what the Supreme Court ruled the other day, when it gets to the 5th Circuit, we will win," Wittenbrink said.

Edwards defended mitigation measures, saying in a statement Saturday restrictions on crowd sizes are driven by data and medical science and are aimed to blunt the virus’s spread.

He added that many faith leaders have worked to navigate the pandemic –– such as holding virtual services and limiting crowds when gathering restrictions were relaxed –- despite the difficulty in those changes.

“I have taken no such decisions lightly,” the governor said. “The reasonable, legal mitigation measures have been necessary to protect the people of Louisiana from unchecked spread of the coronavirus, which would limit hospitals’ ability to deliver care.”


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