CENTRAL, La. (WAFB) - The pastor of a Louisiana church who says he believes the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is “politically motivated” defied government orders and welcomed hundreds of people into his church service Tuesday evening (March 17).
The gathering directly defied an order by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards that bans groups larger than 50 from gathering at any one time, including in churches. President Donald Trump has recommended no groups larger than 10.
The pastor, Rev. Tony Spell, says police showed up at the church after the service telling him the National Guard would break up any future services with more than 50 people gathered. Spell says 305 people attended the service in the sanctuary Tuesday night.
Numerous churches across the state have canceled services until further notice because of the governor’s proclamation, which he says aims to control the spread of the virus.
Tuesday’s service was held at Life Tabernacle Church in the City of Central, located in East Baton Rouge Parish. Rev. Spell says he does not believe his congregation is at risk of getting COVID-19.
“It’s not a concern,” Spell said of the virus. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore says those violating the governor’s proclamation could face prosecution as a last resort. Reverend Spell is not concerned with that and boasted he had an even larger crowd this past weekend, days after the governor’s proclamation was issued.
“I had 1,170 in attendance Sunday,” Spell said. “We have 27 buses on Sundays picking up people in a five parish area,” he said.
Spell says the more than 1,000 people who attended Sunday were in various parts of the church. However, he says a large portion of them were gathered in the main worship area of the church that day.
Gov. Edwards addressed the ban on large gatherings at bars, restaurants, churches, and other places during a news conference Saturday, March 14.
“I'm a person of faith,” the governor said. “I happen to believe very much in the awesome power of prayer. I also believe in science, and the scientists at the CDC say that the measures we are taking will minimize the spread."
U.S. Congressman Clay Higgins, a Republican from Louisiana, sent a letter to the governor last week saying he believes the limit on the size of church gatherings is unconstitutional.
“I agree that all our constituents and religious leaders should follow the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC),” Higgins wrote. “However, the decision to gather should be the choice of the individual or institution and not a mandate by any government entity. The state has no authority to enforce this proclamation nor any ban on worship.”
Moore, when asked about the Tuesday night service at Life Tabernacle, said all people and groups, including churches, should follow the rules. Moore says he does not believe churches are exempt from the proclamation just so long as the proclamation is narrowly tailored and not targeting any particular church.
“This is a very delicate issue and balance between emergency powers, the First Amendment, and religious rights and freedom,” Moore said. “We respect the people’s right to meet and practice their religion, but during these dangerous times, some temporary restrictions will prevail.”
Moore acknowledged those in violation of the proclamation could be prosecuted, but will first be asked by law enforcement to voluntarily comply.
“Hopefully, there will be some alternatives this church can use to ‘congregate’ and pray through other means that comply with the restrictions,” Moore said. “Summonses and prosecution will be the least favorable means to have well-intended people comply.”
Former Louisiana state legislator, Woody Jenkins, attended the church service and live-streamed video of it to Facebook. Jenkins, who owns the Central City News newspaper, says he’s not a member of the church but supports the congregation’s right to assemble.
“Our attitude is the First Amendment rights rise and fall together: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press,” he said.
Jenkins says another church in Central, Milldale Baptist Church, has a large church service scheduled for Wednesday evening.
The Central Police Department issued the following statement about the service:
"Monday, with the support of President Trump, health officials, and physicians, the governor issued an emergency order banning public or private gatherings with more than 50 people. This order was put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19." - Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran
The service started with several songs followed by a sermon about not living in fear.
“We want to encourage other religious leaders in churches like us, do not let the fear of persecution of any government official, any dictator law, prevent you from worshiping God, which our First Amendment states you are not allowed to do in any form,” said Spell. “Our church is a hospital where the sick can come and get healing. Cancers are healed here, people are healed of HIV in these services, and we believe that tonight, we’re also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness, and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well."
The faithful members of the church say they’re not going anywhere.
“I love Pastor Spell for giving me the Word. I love him for the man he is. He changed me so much. I’m not missing my church because of no coronavirus. I love the Lord and He’s going to take care of us,” said Lillian Alexander, who attends the church often.
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