Tony Spell, the first pastor to publicly defy COVID-19 lockdown orders, has won his legal battle against the state of Louisiana two years later.
The state Supreme Court decided 5 to 2 on Friday that the governor did not have a good reason to block Spell’s Oneness Pentecostal church from meeting for worship while other venues received exemptions from public health restrictions.
A 2020 executive order in the Bayou State prohibited gatherings of more than 50, and a subsequent order limited groups to 10, following the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early in the pandemic. Both orders carved out exceptions, however, for airports, grocery stores, factories, office buildings, and other meetings deemed “essential.”
It is a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion to offer legal exemptions to secular groups and not religious ones, the Louisiana court found.
According to Justice William J. Craine, it was also kind of absurd.
“An unlimited number of people were allowed to remain in a single conference room in an office building for an unlimited period of time, all in close proximity, talking, eating, and engaging in any other ‘normal operations’ of the business,” he wrote.
“However, if ten of these individuals left the conference room, walked across the street to a church, and entered an otherwise empty sanctuary building for a worship service, they were subject to criminal prosecution.”
Craine said the government had a legitimate interest in stopping the spread of the coronavirus but couldn’t unfairly disadvantage religious groups.
“We interpret Pastor Spell ’s request not as one for special treatment,” he concluded, “but for equal treatment.”
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards will not appeal the ruling. The US Supreme Court has already sided with religious group filing similar objections to pandemic restrictions in California and New York. In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the justices wen so far as to say that the uneven COVID-19 rules “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment ’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
Edwards disagrees with the Louisiana court’s decision, according to an official statement, but “he is accepting of it.”
State prosecutors were not especially aggressive in pressing the case against Spell. They presented no witnesses and offered little evidence beyond the executive orders that the pastor and his lawyers argued were unconstitutional.
The state offered Spell a plea deal in March, offering to drop five of the charges if he pleaded no-contest to a sixth.
The pastor, who leads Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, was defiant from beginning to end.
“I’m guilty of having church,” Spell told his congregation in 2020. “I’m guilty of preaching. I’m guilty of praying. But I’m not guilty of breaking any law. I’m not guilty. The only thing I’m guilty of is doing what the Bible told me to do: ‘Do not forsake the assembly of ourselves together.’”
Spell also promoted baseless conspiracy theories about the virus—alleging without evidence that it was a scam to help Joe Biden steal the presidential election. He discouraged his congregation from getting COVID-19 vaccines, despite the fact the scientific trials showed they are highly effective.
One member of the church told local media he believed the vaccine was part of an attempt to kill Christian conservatives.
“It starts going into conspiracy theory type stuff,” he admitted, “but I do, I believe it’s Bill Gates and them trying to kill us.”
Bill Gates had nothing to do with it, but people did die in Louisiana. According to state data, COVID-19 killed more than 17,000 people, including 1,300 in the parish in which Spell’s Pentecostal church is located.
At least one of them belonged to the church. Harold Orillion, a 78-year-old military veteran, died in April 2020. The coroner’s report said, “Acute respiratory distress syndrome, 2nd pneumonia, 2nd COVID-19.”
In church on Sunday, Spell acknowledged that the last two years have been a challenge for him and the church, but he said God used it for good. Spell said he even saw God at work in the date of the decision, pointing out that Friday the 13th has often been associated with evil.
“Well Devil, you just got dethroned and unseated, because this is a day that is not infamous, but this is a day that now we’ll say the Lord has made,” Spell preached.
“Because the Lord allowed us to enter into this battle 27 months ago, because the more we were afflicted, the more we multiplied and grew. The more the devil attacked us, the more miracles were performed in this sanctuary. … There has been a precedent-setting case that will from generation upon generation upon generation be quoted.”