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Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell, left, walks toward the door of Firehouse BBQ in Denham Springs where he wsa eating to show his support, Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, days after the Louisiana Department of Health revoked the eatery's food permit because Firehouse was not requiring masks for employees or customers. Spell gained notoriety for continuing to hold large church services in defiance of limitations on gathering size, early on in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. John Bel Edwards planned to serve mustard greens grown in his garden but described this year’s Thanksgiving as far different than last year’s.

Only the immediate family – his wife and son – would attend as opposed to the usual 90 or so folks. "Last year, my 84-year-old mother came. I have six siblings, and they all came with their spouses and their children and their grandchildren," Edwards said while announcing Tuesday that the fast increasing number of coronavirus cases in Louisiana required a return to more stringent measures: masks in public and limits on how many people can gather in one place.

And, per the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long indoor meals of traditional holiday gatherings shouldn’t include family outside the immediate household, he said.

"You won't see it at Christmas either,” said Democratic Gov. Edwards.

Running commentary by viewers alongside the livestream of Edwards’ press conference skewered the governor: He's exaggerating. COVID is a hoax. He's power mad.

This shouldn’t come as surprise as lèse-majesté has been ingrained in Louisiana culture since the first colonists from France clambered off the boat some 300 years ago.

Though two-thirds of the country planned to hold small Thanksgiving celebrations, Louisiana was at the top of the list for those who would not, according to survey of 150,000 people by Dynata made at the request of The New York Times. The next 13 states with high numbers rejecting the CDC and participating in traditional holiday celebrations, like Louisiana, voted for Republican President Donald Trump, reflecting a partisan flair to the battle against COVID-19.

Without a doubt, pandemic restrictions amount to an unprecedented government reach into people’s businesses, their homes, their children’s schools, their places of worship. But Edwards says his duty is to protect Louisiana residents. And his reasoning for those intrusions have been upheld by the courts.

Timing has played a part in upsetting the opposition. House Republican efforts this summer to get enough signatures on a petition to sideline the governor’s emergency order was hampered by a spike in infections. When the petition, finally with enough Republicans signing, went before a judge earlier this month, Louisiana was at the precipice of a third infections increase.

But partisan politics also played a role.

Nineteenth Judicial District Judge William Morvant, of Baton Rouge, ruled Nov. 12 that a petition supported by only one legislative chamber was not enough to overcome the healthcare emergency ordered by the executive.

Attorney General Jeff Landry went blood simple, blaming Morvant, a fellow Republican, for turning Louisiana into a “dictatorship” by showing “disdain for the female attorneys” in his office while giving “greater deference to the men representing the governor.”

Almost simultaneously, a federal court dismissed claims by the Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central. He attracted worldwide attention this spring for his brash refusal to follow Edwards' most restrictive etiquette on public gatherings during the statewide lockdown last spring. In returning to Phase 2 on Tuesday, Edwards left churches with the ability to fill up 75% of their sanctuaries.

“You know why King Edwards hates me?” Spell had earlier asked. “I’m taking his voter base from him. It stands to reason, when a man starts coming to church and gets off welfare and government subsidies, he starts pulling the Republican ticket instead of the Democrat ticket.”

The U.S. Supreme Court refused Friday night to consider Spell's appeal of his loss in lower courts.

In his ruling against Spell two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, of Baton Rouge, cited other recent court decisions over pandemic restrictions on churches in California, Illinois, Maine and Virginia, writing that a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found the First Amendment right of free expression is not absolute during a public health emergency.

Rev. Tony Spell loses again in fight against Gov. John Bel Edwards' crowd-size limits

A decision issued late Wednesday night by the U.S. Supreme Court was at odds with the earlier rulings cited by Jackson. The key vote shifted with newly installed Justice Amy Comey Barrett giving the high court a new 5-4 majority.

But the partisan grandstanding was at a minimum as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn argued against their governor’s limitations on religious gatherings: 10 congregants in areas with the highest infection rates, 25 in the slightly less dangerous areas. The Supreme Court agreed that New York failed to show consistency in protecting the common good by limiting religious worship.

The ruling mentioned chemical plants among examples of “essential” businesses allowed to remain open with far less stringent social distancing requirements than demanded of churches, synagogues, and mosques. “It is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000-seat church or 400-seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the state allows," the unsigned high court ruling read.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.