BR.centralchurch.040120 HS 656.JPG

Pastor Tony Spell stands in the doorway as congregants arrive for the 7:30 pm Tuesday service at Life Tabernacle Church on Hooper Road, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, Central, La.

We’re hearing two views as the death toll for coronavirus mounts.

One is that of an irresponsible minister, Tony Spell of Central in suburban Baton Rouge.

"This is an attack on religion. This an attack on our constitutional rights. We have a constitutional right to assemble and to gather and there are no laws that I am breaking," he said Tuesday, before leading another service putting the lives of all attending at risk.

Here’s a more sensible Christian view.

“If I thought this was an attack on religious freedom, I’d be right there with him,” says Tony Perkins. “It’s a directive for the sake of public health not to meet.”

Perkins, a former state representative, makes his home nearby and for his day job leads the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

He is right to reject the absolutist and dangerous actions of Spell. Already charged by prosecutors with six counts of violating the emergency declaration, handcuffs cannot and should not be far behind for the defiant Life Tabernacle Church pastor.

The argument that the First Amendment to the Constitution forbids any and all government actions in terms of speech, religion and assembly is just wrong. The famous phrase used by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court was that there is no free-speech right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

“The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” often attributed to President Abraham Lincoln to justify emergency actions during the Civil War, was used in a high court opinion in the 1940s.

In terms of law and society, the Central pastor is wrong.

Here, Attorney General Jeff Landry has supported that the stay-at-home orders and limits on public assemblies. We agree with him and Gov. John Bel Edwards that public-health emergencies require strong action.

What is at work here, exploited by Spell, is the genuine fear of a faceless threat. People of faith naturally wish to come together as they are used to, seeking divine guidance and inspiration. Those days will come again, but for the moment prudence must be the rule.

One of those dying of coronavirus complications was a well-known Episcopalian minister, the Rev. William Barnwell of New Orleans. Friends remembered an important sermon in which he rejected a fearful and bleak view of human nature.

“We are creatures made in the very image of God. And we can live the way we were created to live, especially with the help of a loving community,” Barnwell said.

Those called to the ministry have a leadership responsibility not only to God but to their communities. A loving community of believers does not gather in the face of a deadly communicable disease. Those who defy legitimate public-safety orders should be arrested.

Louisiana Spotlight: Virus threat brings all parties, mostly, together in politics