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The Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, sits in his office the evening of March 18 after a long day of fielding calls about his defiance of an order limiting public gatherings.

Stupid is as stupid does, Forrest Gump once said. The idea is one’s actions make them stupid, not their accent, or the way they talk or look. Jamie Coots is a perfect example. Coots pastored a snake-handling church in the Appalachia region. A rattlesnake he was holding during a worship service bit him. He’s dead now. Stupid is as stupid does. 

But as foolish as Coots was, it’s not nearly as bad as what the Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central is doing. Spell continues to conduct services despite Gov. John Bel Edwards banning any gatherings of more than 50 people to contain the deadly and quickly spreading coronavirus. While Coots’ stupidity cost him his own life, Spell’s could end up costing the lives of those in his church, city and region.

Spell told CNN his church in Central drew about 1,000 this past Sunday in part by busing in worshippers from five different parishes. Video taken by a Baton Rouge television station shows congregants last Sunday huddling tight hugging each other in close proximity in a large tent set up in front of the church. Many of them were elderly. Sunday’s service was the second one Spell held in defiance of the governor’s ban. Spell says he’ll gather his flock together again this week.

“The virus, we believe, is politically motivated," said Spell. “We hold our religious rights dear, and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”

Despite coronavirus threat, this Central pastor plans outdoor service on Sunday

I placed calls to Central Mayor David Barrow and police Chief Roger Corcoran, to ask why they continue to allow Spell to gather large crowds in violation of the governor’s order. Neither returned my call. I also did not hear back from the governor’s office as to why the state has not intervened.

“If they close every door in this city, then I will close my doors,” Spell told CNN. “But you can’t say retailers are essential, but the church is not. That is persecution of the faith.”

What a ridiculous argument! If Edwards banned gatherings of more than 50 for churches only, then Spell playing the “persecution” card would hold water. But his comparing holding church services to other businesses allowed to remain open is silly. People need to buy groceries, fill their vehicles with gas, go to the bank for money and see a doctor if necessary. That’s pretty much all that’s still open.

Many Christians continue to worship by watching services online. It’s not the perfect scenario and is likely costing churches dearly, not being able to take an offering, but it’s a sacrifice most, if not all Louisiana pastors are willing to make knowing it will save lives.

Report: Pastor defies governor's orders on coronavirus, 305 attend service in Central

Spell’s claim of religious persecution is a mockery of a legitimate issue. We’ve seen business owners across America who refused to condone the gay lifestyle forced to shut their doors as a result of heavy government-imposed fines. Businesses standing up for traditional family values have also been the target of gay activist lawsuits looking to shut them down. San Antonio recently banned Chick-fil-A from opening in its airport since the fast-food chain supports pro-family values groups.

“We want to encourage other religious leaders in churches like us, do not let fear of persecution of any government official, any dictator law, prevent you from worshipping God," said Spell.

Spell is mostly alone in claiming the government is using the coronavirus to persecute Christians.

“It is obvious that the government’s motivation in this is to protect the well-being of individuals,” said Robert Jeffries, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and a close adviser to President Donald Trump.

“It’s one thing to risk your own life in order to worship together in person, it’s quite another to risk the lives of countless others,” Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, recently wrote about Spell’s stubbornness.

The coronavirus is currently spreading faster in Louisiana than most anywhere else. Spell’s reckless and dangerous attempt to portray himself as a crusader for religious freedom is beyond reprehensible. It’s time for authorities to shut him down. If they don’t, Spell’s idiocy will lead to the death of some who would have otherwise survived.

Email Dan Fagan at Faganshow@gmail.com.