Judge rejects Tony Spell's request to quash criminal charges for violating COVID-19 restrictions

Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. | YouTube/Tony Spell

A judge in Louisiana has rejected a motion filed by controversial Pastor Tony Spell to quash six misdemeanor charges filed against him for holding church services in violation of state orders aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

Judge Eboni Johnson-Rose of Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court denied Spell’s motion Monday, ruling that the constitutionality of Gov. John Bel Edwards has already been confirmed by courts.

Spell, the leader of Life Tabernacle Church in Central who made national headlines last year by holding large in-person worship gatherings in defiance of Bell’s pandemic measures, had argued that government limits on gatherings at the church violated the congregation’s First Amendment rights.

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Spell did not attend the hearing because he has refused to wear a face mask inside the courthouse. Instead, Spell along with members of his church were present outside the courthouse.

Spell expressed his disapproval of the ruling.

“You just ruled against God,” the Pentecostal pastor said, according to WVLA-TV. “Get ready for the judgment of God.”

Spell could face up to $3,000 in fines and jail time if convicted of the charges.

According to WAFB, Spell said that Johnson-Rose’s goes against “religious liberties in America.”

“They ruled against civil liberties in America,” Spell was quoted as saying. “A lose for us today is a lose for America. A loss for us today is a loss for all religion in America and not just religion but people with civil liberties.”

Inside the courtroom, Spell’s lawyer, Jeff Wittenbrink, argued that the state’s gathering restrictions unfairly targeted houses of worship on grounds that big-box stores were allowed to stay open with many customers inside.

Meanwhile, an attorney who was brought in by the prosecuting attorney to handle Spell’s case contended that the governor’s orders were applied neutrally. According to WAFB, the attorney, Darrell Papillion, went as far as saying: “you cannot decide on a given day that our God, our church, our beliefs are bigger than the law.”

Papillion also argued that “religious freedom does not give them the right to expose the community to communicable disease.”

After the judge’s denial Monday, Spell will likely appeal to the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals.

According to the state’s COVID-19 tracking website, over 8,500 people in Louisiana have died from COVID-19. The state has seen over 339,000 confirmed cases of the virus.

In an interview with The Advocate, Spell did not hold back in accusing the governor, who is Catholic, of being a “tyrant.”

“The governor hates Christians. If he says anything different, he’s a liar,” Spell claimed. “He says all these people behind me are lawbreakers, and we’re not. The law-breaker’s … right over there in the governor’s mansion.”

In a statement, Edwards, a Democrat, praised the judge’s decision.

“My Christian Catholic faith teaches me that we should be good neighbors to one another and that includes doing what we can to protect each other from this terrible virus," Edwards said, according to The Advocate. "The vaccine is not available to everyone at this time but masks are. The best and easiest thing that we can all do is wear one to help get us back to where we all want to be."

The ruling comes after the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito rejected a request for the nation’s high court to grant Spell’s plea for emergency relief from the criminal charges in November.

In November, the Supreme Court also ruled to temporarily suspend New York’s COVID-19 restrictions limiting the size of worship gatherings in the Empire State.

However, Johnson-Rose sided with the Louisiana attorney’s argument that there are differences between Louisiana’s restrictions and the New York restrictions that the Supreme Court struck down in November.

In April, Spell was arrested for aggravated assault after he allegedly backed up a church bus dangerously toward a protester demonstrating against his church services outside the church property. Spell’s lawyer claimed at the time that Spell did not try to run over the protester.

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