A Baton Rouge area pastor is continuing to defy an order from Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards against large gatherings in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak by welcoming in hundreds of people into his church service Tuesday evening.
The gathering directly defied Bel Edwards’ order 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.
Rev. Tony Spell told WAFB-TV that police showed up at Life Tabernacle Church after the service telling him the National Guard would break up any future gatherings that exceed 50 people.
However, Louisiana National Guard Colonel Ed Bush said Wednesday that is not accurate.
“The National Guard has not been tasked with enforcing any of the curfew, social distancing or meeting requirements as set by the governor,” Colonel Bush said. “Our focus right now is completely with helping state agencies with preparedness and medical readiness,” Bush added.
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 pandemic. “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 has warned that those caught violating the governor’s proclamation could face prosecution as a last resort.
Rev. Spell says he is not concerned with the threat of prosecution 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.
“I’m a person of faith,” the governor said on Saturday while addressing his ban on large gatherings at bars, restaurants, churches. “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.
“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 a 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.