When the Manship family owned The Advocate, they chiseled the text of the First Amendment into a series of glass slabs and hung it in the lobby of their headquarters.
The Advocate has since changed hands. It is now owned by Dathel and John Georges. It has a new headquarters, and it has purchased The Times-Picayune and moved it to a new building as well.
But the First Amendment is still in our lobby, and every day we work we are reminded of its enduring power.
So it’s disheartening to see Baton Rouge area pastor Tony Spell hijack the First Amendment in his fight against Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus safety restriction.
Spell is the publicity-seeking pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, who likens himself to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.
Spell faces jail time in addition to a $500 fine on each accusation that, six times last March, he violated orders limiting public gatherings to 50 and then just 10 people. He skipped his criminal hearing Monday because he did not want to wear a mask, as required to enter the Baton Rouge courthouse. So he spoke outside, surrounded by supporters.
After he lost, again, he said 19th Judicial District Judge Eboni Johnson-Rose “ruled against God, so you get ready for the judgment of God."
He called Edwards, a Roman Catholic, a “liar,” “godless” and a "tyrant."
“The governor hates Christians. If he says anything different, he’s a liar. He says all these people behind me are lawbreakers, and we’re not. The lawbreakers … right over there in the Governor’s Mansion,” Spell said.
We doubt that’s what Edwards’ constituents see when they size up their governor, who a year ago won reelection with 775,000 votes, overcoming blistering attacks from President Donald Trump.
"My Christian Catholic faith teaches me that we should be good neighbors to one another and that includes doing what we can to protect each other from this terrible virus," Edwards said in response.
In fact, none of the governor’s orders challenge Spell’s right to preach, only his right to hold services in an unsafe way.
Churches comply with all sorts of public health rules. Their buildings have to be safe from fires, withstand hurricanes and limit capacity for safety reasons.
As journalists, we take a back seat to no one when it comes to defending the First Amendment. But we practice journalism in buildings that comply with fire safety rules and construction standards governing structural soundness and historic preservation.
The First Amendment provides towering protections for faith, speech and peaceful assembly, for every citizen, not just journalists. These liberties have kept our democracy strong for two and a half centuries and made us the envy of the world. But the Constitution is not a shield against lawbreaking, as Spell learns every time he shows up for court.