Pastor Tony Spell, the head of Louisiana’s Life Tabernacle Church, has finally received the legal victory he’s been clamoring for.
The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled 5-2 yesterday that COVID restrictions instituted by the state’s governor in March of 2020 were unconstitutionally applied to Spell, who repeatedly violated it to hold church services in the name of “religious freedom,” putting countless people in harm’s way.
That March, when the virus was spreading uncontrollably, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued Order 30, which banned gatherings of 50 or more people for about a month. It didn’t apply to places like airpots or grocery stores (where people usually just move in and out as quickly as possible). A week later, Edwards issued Order 33, which closed “non-essential businesses” and gatherings larger than 10 people. It also imposed a stay-at-home mandate for everyone except people who were “performing an essential activity.”
The bottom line was that these restrictions were, at the time, the best options to limit the spread of the virus before we had a grasp on what exactly we were dealing with. As we know, however, people ignored those restrictions across the country. They didn’t avoid large gatherings. They didn’t stay home. Many church leaders even filed lawsuits demanding that church be included in the list of “essential activities,” putting their faith-based selfishness over public health sensibilities.
Spell decided denying the reality of COVID was the best way to turn himself into a martyr for the cause. He ignored the stay-at-home mandate. He held massive church gatherings in defiance of the executive orders. Even after being placed under house arrest for defying the law, he continued preaching at his nearby church multiple times a week, even asking supporters to send him portions of their stimulus checks.
He was ultimately charged on six criminal counts of defying Order 30 (three times) and Order 33 (three times). If convicted, he faced a possible jail sentence.
Since that time, however, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of other churches in other states that had similar concerns. They basically said that if any places (like grocery stores) are allowed to remain open during the pandemic, then churches must be treated the same way, even though they’re substantively different. The Supreme Court’s rulings made no sense, ignored valid differences, and had the net result of putting the public in danger in the event of a future pandemic.
They also helped Spell’s case.
Citing the right-wing Supreme Court’s decisions, the Louisiana Supreme Court said its job was to decide whether “Orders 30 and 33 violated [Tony Spell’s] fundamental right to exercise religion by exempting comparable secular activities from the mandated restrictions.”
Their answer? Yes, those orders were unconstitutional. If factory workers, airports, and office buildings were exempt from the gathering restrictions, the Court said, there’s no reason churches couldn’t be open too.
Writing in dissent, Chief Justice John Weimer noted that there was no reason to think Spell’s religious freedom would have been impeded if he had to hold services outdoors or online, which is absolutely true.
The end result is that the charges against Spell have been thrown out. The governor gets cast as a the villain even though his administration was doing its best to prevent the spread of a virus which, at the time, had no vaccine and whose nature wasn’t well understood. He used sensible restrictions using the best available science while allowing movement where it seemed absolutely necessary… but conservative Christians acted like everything was persecution.
Government officials were never trying to restrict religion; they were trying to stop the spread of the virus. But many church leaders didn’t give a damn. It was easier to cast government officials as religious oppressors than make a sacrifice that would have impacted their bottom line.
Now Louisiana’s Supreme Court has given a victory to one of the biggest whiners and super-spreaders in the state. Spell gets to be the faux-martyr he always wanted to be.
It’s deeply ironic that his victory comes as the nation’s COVID death tracker is about to cross the one million mark. We’ll never know how many of Louisiana’s 17,000 deaths can be attributed to selfish pastors, but it’s hard to imagine Spell’s massive maskless indoor services weren’t responsible for at least a chunk of those.
And yet the insufferable Spell will likely spend Sunday morning doing victory laps in church while ignoring the dead bodies and serious medical problems caused by his selfishness.