Of all the religious leaders who are openly defying state bans on large gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, arguably the most notorious is Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in the town of Central, La.
Early on, Spell speculated that the virus was being overblown to embarrass President Donald Trump. He repeatedly ignored an order from Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) curbing mass gatherings, going so far as to bus people in from the surrounding area for services.
Even after a member of his congregation died of the virus and one of his attorneys got sick, Spell would not reverse course. Last month, Spell was arrested after he was accused of trying to run down a protestor with a bus. He was given bail and told to stay at home, but he refused and continued to preach. Authorities slapped an ankle monitor on him and put him under house arrest.
Spell also filed a lawsuit challenging Edwards’ order and enlisted former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore to advise him. That gambit failed Friday night, when a federal court issued a ruling denying Spell’s request for a temporary emergency order giving him the right to hold in-person services.
“The Court finds that there is a substantial relationship between the occupancy limitations in the Governor’s orders and the current severe public health crisis,” wrote U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson. “Such restrictions are directly intended to limit the contact-based spread of COVID-19. Additionally, [the governor’s order] is not a complete ban on Plaintiffs’ rights as alleged by Plaintiffs. Under the terms of the order, Plaintiffs have been free to hold outdoor services with as many congregants as they would like and nothing in the orders proscribes, inhibits or regulates the content of their religious speech. Plaintiffs have always been free to fully exercise their rights to assembly, although for smaller numbers of congregants.” (Americans United’s Legal Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Spell v. Edwards case.)
The next night, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion from several Illinois churches seeking to override the state’s temporary ban on large gatherings.
“The Executive Order,” observed the unanimous three-judge panel, “does not discriminate against religious activities, nor does it show hostility toward religion.”
The court added that the order’s “temporary numerical restrictions on public gatherings apply not only to worship services but also to the most comparable types of secular gatherings, such as concerts, lectures, theatrical performances, or choir practices, in which groups of people gather together for extended periods, especially where speech and singing feature prominently and raise risks of transmitting the COVID-19 virus.”
Notably, one of the judges on the panel was Frank H. Easterbrook, a noted conservative jurist. (AU’s Legal Department filed a brief in this case, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker, as well.)
While there are some exceptions, most courts are taking the reasonable route and upholding neutral bans on large gatherings, religious and secular, during this difficult time. Most religious leaders are also doing the right thing and moving services online. Hold-outs like Spell are putting their communities at risk. Call that what you will, but it’s not religious freedom.
Remember, Americans United has been working overtime to educate courts, legislators and the public about why granting houses of worship special treatment during the pandemic is not only dangerous but unconstitutional. Your support will help us continue those important efforts.
Photo: Video of service at Life Tabernacle Church. Screenshot from WAFB-TV, Baton Rouge