La. pandemic restrictions violated religious rights, court rules; Pastor Tony Spell takes victory lap

FILE - Tony Spell, pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church of Central City, La., greets...
FILE - Tony Spell, pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church of Central City, La., greets supporters outside the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Monday, June 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)(Gerald Herbert | AP)
Published: May. 13, 2022 at 11:26 AM CDT|Updated: May. 13, 2022 at 4:56 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Pastor Tony Spell says he’s already planning a triumphant Sunday sermon, following a Louisiana Supreme Court decision that declared the state’s COVID restrictions violated his first amendment rights.

The ruling came down Fri., May 13.

Spell was arrested in April of 2020 after being accused of violating executive orders from Governor John Bel Edwards that laid out restrictions on businesses and in-person gatherings during the peak of the pandemic. Despite those orders, Spell continued to hold massive in-person services at Life Tabernacle Church in Central.

In a 19-page ruling, State Justice William J Crain overturned lower court rulings, arguing the state could not prove that large church gatherings posed a greater risk of exposure to the virus than shopping at a secular business or attending work as an essential employee.

“The virus does not have a brain. It does not stop at the store of Walmart and come into the church,” said Spell in an interview just hours after the ruling was made public Friday, May 13.

Justices appeared to share that opinion.

“We interpret Pastor Spell’s request not as one for special treatment, but for equal treatment,” wrote Justice William J. Crane in the court’s majority opinion. We reject any contention that early in a crisis, the Constitution’s protection of fundamental rights must always yield to the needs of the state to respond to the crisis. A public health emergency does not relegate the First Amendment to a proposition or allow violations thereof to be judged on a sliding scale of constitutionality. The infringement of the fundamental right of the free exercise of religion, whether in times of crisis or calm, must always be strictly scrutinized by our courts.”

Read the full ruling by clicking the link here.

The ruling also dismisses six misdemeanor counts against Spell. He explained those charges had kept him from being able to travel freely, even after COVID restrictions expired, and caused him to miss the birth of his second grandson.

“I cried, because after 27 months [the ruling] says everything we’ve done was right [and] everything the governor has done was wrong,” said Spell. “We’ve lost in so many different levels federal court, district court several times and to come to this moment feels like one of the greatest victory of our lifetime.”

Spell’s attorney, Jeff Wittenbrink, believes the ruling will set a new precedent for future emergency orders.

“When there’s an emergency, the justices made it clear that the Governor has to pay attention to those rights we have that are protected by the constitution,” said Wittenbrink. “The next time there is an emergency, the governor or the executives, or whoever is making the decisions will pay a lot more attention to the free rights of individuals.”

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John L. Weimer argued, “Such strict scrutiny is, in my view, not warranted here, especially when there is no evidence establishing whether religious worship, religious practices, and the exercise thereof were actually impacted if moved to either virtual or outdoors services, as other churches did.”

Governor John Bel Edwards also disagreed with the decision. His office issued the following statement on the ruling Friday afternoon.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore also said he disagrees with the majority ruling in a statement released Friday.

“We are still reviewing today’s decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court.  While we respect the Court’s decision regarding the complex issues of fact and law presented in this important case, we believe the dissenting opinion of the Chief Justice is more correct, and, at a minimum, this matter should have been remanded to the district court for further development of the record in light of the evolving jurisprudence as well as the evolving scientific understanding of the health and public safety issues implicated by the Governor’s orders,” wrote Moore. “While we are mindful and respectful of the strong interest in protecting the free exercise of religion, we believe we had an obligation to protect the public and the rule of law.”

Wittenbrink says the ruling Friday is a good sign for Spell’s civil lawsuit which is being heard in the 5th Circuit of Appeal.

However, for now, both Spell and Wittenbrink are enjoying their victory lap.

“I did shed a few tears when the victory came down because it is just really really important,” said Wittenbrink.

“We said 27 months ago that we would rather die than kill the church. That some things are worse than giving up your religious liberties,” Spell said. “I’m glad we listened to God and not the governor.”

Spell says he has already begun writing his sermon for his Sunday service and has plans on bringing together members from seven churches.

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