The Supreme Court of Louisiana announced Tuesday that it will hear a case on whether criminal charges should remain against controversial Pastor Tony Spell for violating Gov. John Bel Edwards’ order against gatherings of more than 50 people during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A scheduling order said Spell must file his briefs on or before Jan. 3, while the state will have to respond by Jan. 21. The court is expected to set a time for oral arguments.
Spell, who leads Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, made headlines as he repeatedly flouted state COVID-19 restrictions aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus by holding in-person church services. He argued that the First Amendment guarantees his right to religious freedom.
Earlier this year, a state judge refused to dismiss the charges against Spell. Last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito rejected the pastor’s request to hear his case after lower federal courts ruled the governor’s coronavirus restrictions were either constitutional or the case became moot once his stay-at-home order lapsed.
Earlier this year, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore offered Spell a chance to plead no contest to one of the misdemeanor charges he faces in exchange for dropping five other charges. He didn’t accept the offer.
Spell was among a vocal minority of pastors who drew national attention in 2020 for disobeying state and local COVID-19 restrictions that restricted in-person worship gatherings. In one sermon livestreamed on Facebook, the controversial pastor appeared to offer divine protection to churchgoers from the virus.
“We’re also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well,” Spell noted.
Spell told BRProud in October that Edwards’ COVID-19 restrictions were unconstitutional at the time he faced them and he is confident he will prevail in the Louisiana State Supreme Court.
“Whenever the governor put these rules and mandates in place, they were unlawful, they were unconstitutional,” Spell said.
“We feel confident as long as the judges in the Louisiana Supreme Court rule on our First Amendment rights, freedom to assemble, free speech, free exercise,” he continued. “If they don’t, then American is on the course to anarchy.”