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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.

Through his lawyer, Central pastor Tony Spell pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a half-dozen misdemeanor offenses alleging the Pentecostal preacher violated the governor's emergency order when he preached to hundreds of people at his church this spring. Spell missed the hearing because he didn't want to wear a mask inside the courthouse, which is required.

The pastor at Life Tabernacle Church was charged in April with six counts of violating the state's limit on gatherings of more than 10 people that was in effect at the time to blunt the spread of the coronavirus

A number of Spell's supporters also stood outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse after they and Spell were denied entry into the building. Because Spell is charged with misdemeanors, he was not required to appear with his lawyer. He cited religious freedom as his reason why he wouldn't wear a mask inside the courthouse.

"This is about religious and civil liberties," Spell said. "What is at stake? We lose our right to assemble."

At the time Spell was charged in early April, coronavirus cases had been surging in Louisiana, and the state saw some of the deadliest weeks of the pandemic outbreak not long after. 

Despite the offenses carrying a $500 fine and jail time, Spell set up several showdowns with authorities when he continued to hold services that drew large crowds of worshippers.

At least one church member had died after contracting COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new virus, and Spell's lawyer, too, was hospitalized after catching it. It isn't known where the men contracted the virus.

Spell was also arrested not long after and charged with assault when a man protesting the services said the pastor nearly backed into him with a school bus outside the church.

That case remains pending, but the court had ordered that Spell wear an ankle monitor and stay at home as a condition for his bail.

He continued to return to his pulpit and continued to preach in the weeks following, in some services lifting his pant leg to reveal the location tracking device around his ankle.

Spell was relieved of house arrest in May and also was charged with two counts of being a fugitive from justice for violating his house arrest. The case has been pending in district court with no future date set.

The pastor previously said the Gov. John Bel Edwards' emergency proclamations violated his and his congregants' First Amendment rights to assemble and practice their faith.

Those arguments, among others, were included in a federal lawsuit Spell filed against the state at the U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge. The judge in the case rejected Spell's claims in May, ruling the governor had the authority to issue emergency directives during a severe public health threat.

Baton Rouge District Judge Bonnie Jackson on Tuesday set a hearing for Jan. 25, 2021, for the six counts of violating Edward's order.


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