Gov. Edwards’ stances on protests and churches inconsistent, judge warns after shooting down Tony Spell’s appeal

“If protests are exempt from social distancing requirements, then worship must be too.”
Governor John Bel Edwards
Governor John Bel Edwards(WAFB)
Published: Jun. 19, 2020 at 11:26 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Rev. Tony Spell, for the second time, failed to convince judges to side with him rather than Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards.

A district judge in May first denied Spell’s challenge to Gov. Edwards’ “stay-at-home” ban preventing groups of more than 10 people from gathering in the same place anywhere in the state, at any one time, including in churches.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal on Thursday, June 18, handed Spell his second court loss after Spell challenged the district judge’s ruling.

“A Louisiana church and its pastor ask us to enjoin stay-at-home orders restricting in-person church services to ten congregants. But there is nothing for us to enjoin. The challenged orders expired more than a month ago,” wrote Circuit Judge Gregg Costa.

Spell’s attorneys argued that the judges should side with Spell in the event Gov. Edwards were to impose another ban on gatherings.

“The trend in Louisiana has been to reopen the state, not to close it down. To be sure, no one knows what the future of COVID-19 holds. But it is speculative, at best, that the Governor might reimpose the ten-person restriction or a similar one,” wrote Costa.

But, among the various pages judges dedicated to dismantling Spell’s logic, was also a message cautioning Gov. Edwards on the inconsistency between his stances on religious gatherings and other gatherings, and protests.

“In recent weeks, officials have not only tolerated protests—they have encouraged them as necessary and important expressions of outrage over abuses of government power,” wrote Circuit Judge James Ho. “For people of faith demoralized by coercive shutdown policies, that raises a question: If officials are now exempting protesters, how can they justify continuing to restrict worshippers? The answer is that they can’t.”

Protesters take over the elevated Interstate 10 during a march in New Orleans, Tuesday, June 2,...
Protesters take over the elevated Interstate 10 during a march in New Orleans, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Ho wrote that he didn’t question the sincerity behind the governor issuing a gathering ban, but warned the governor that any message suggesting gatherings are dangerous to public health need to be applied “consistently, not selectively.”

“If protests are exempt from social distancing requirements, then worship must be too,” Ho wrote.

Ho went on to say, “public officials cannot devalue people of faith while elevating certain protestors. That would offend the First Amendment—not to mention the principle of equality for which the protests stand.”

Another issue raised in Ho’s statement was the governor supporting church services held outdoors but limiting indoor services. Ho noted logic supporting that decision is not conclusive among health experts and presents a dilemma when applied to other events beyond religious gatherings.

“Under his logic, the Governor would allow tens of thousands of LSU fans to assemble this fall under the open sky at Tiger Stadium while forbidding countless others from cheering on the Saints under the Superdome,” Ho wrote.

At the end of his statement, Ho wrote he expects future challenges to the governor’s gathering bans could end differently than Spell’s did. He warned the governor that piecemealing the law could be problematic.

“The First Amendment does not allow our leaders to decide which rights to honor and which to ignore. In law, as in life, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” wrote Ho. “The principle that freedom for me, but not for thee, has no place under our Constitution.”

Pastor Tony Spell speaks to the media after holding an evening service at the Life Tabernacle...
Pastor Tony Spell speaks to the media after holding an evening service at the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., Tuesday, March 31, 2020.(AP Photo / Gerald Herbert)

Spell’s request is rooted in claims that state government cannot overrule constitutionally-protected freedoms that allow Americans to practice religion. Spell has argued he practices “strict adherence to the Holy Bible and Christian principles.” Those principals require in-person gatherings for religious services, Spell’s lawsuit says. Several scriptures from the Bible are quoted in the lawsuit as evidence. Spell also believes he “must lay hands on the sick and pray for them so that they may become well.” There is no scientific evidence that suggests Spell’s touch or his prayer has healed anyone. “The Plaintiffs believe that without assembly, the laying on of hands for prayer and healing, the holy communion, and the love offering have lost their meaning unless done in a public gathering,” the lawsuit states.

Despite Spell’s claim, a district judge ruled Spell’s personal conviction cannot outweigh public safety concerns.

“[Spell and his attorneys] seek recognition of their constitutional rights in a vacuum, curiously paying no heed to the pandemic that has spread across the entire nation in a matter of mere weeks,” wrote District Judge Brian Jackson.

Click here to read Spell’s claims included in the lawsuit.

Spell is also still seeking to be paid for what he called violations of his constitutional rights. That request will be addressed at a later time in district court, however, Judge Jackson signaled it could also be shot down.

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