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Pastor Tony Spell, who defied COVID rules, to appeal criminal charges in state Supreme Court

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Pastor Tony Spell addressing the media outside Central Police Headquarters in Louisiana on April 21, 2020.

The state Supreme Court will hear a case from Tony Spell, a pastor in Central, Louisiana, in which he will fight six criminal charges brought against him for violating COVID-19 Phase 1 protocols. The hearing date has not yet been set.

Spell gained national notoriety last year when he openly defied pandemic lockdown protocols by continuing to hold services with more than 50 people at Life Tabernacle Church in Spring 2020.

Spell was arrested on assault charges on April 21, 2020, after he allegedly nearly backed a bus over a protester outside the church. The protester lived on Hooper Road, directly across from Tabernacle Life.

Spell argues that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ pandemic lockdown protocols have violated citizens’ rights to assembly and religious freedoms. His case has already been tossed out of multiple lower courts, where Spell was denied entry because he and his congregation refused to follow the mask mandate in the courtroom.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected hearing his case on Nov. 27, 2020, allowing lower federal courts’ rulings to stand. Louisiana’s lower federal courts had already ruled that Edwards’ COVID-19 lockdown protocols were constitutional, and some ruled that Spell’s case was moot since protocols restricting attendance and places of religious worship had already been eased.

In a January 2021 hearing on Spell’s case, his attorney, Jeff Wittenbrink, argued that the Governor’s lockdown measures unfairly targeted religious gatherings while allowing retail stores to remain open. The stay-at-home order allowed businesses that provided essential supplies, like food and medicine, to continue operation.

Darrell Papillion, an attorney brought in to handle the case by Baton Rouge DA Hillar Moore’s office, replied by saying the law had been neutrally applied and that religious worship cannot be “bigger than the law.”

Judge Eboni Johnson-Rose declined Spell’s appeal and upheld the stay-at-home order’s constitutionality.

Spell’s case was denied again by a federal appeals court this June, but Judge James Ho noted that the state’s crowd-size restrictions were applied inconsistently.

Spell’s case now goes to the Louisiana Supreme Court, having run out of lower federal state courts to which he can appeal.

Aubry is a reporter, producer and operations assistant in Baton Rouge.