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Supreme Court refuses to dismiss COVID-related charges against Pastor Tony Spell

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

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected Louisiana Pentecostal Pastor Tony Spell’s petition seeking emergency relief from criminal charges for violating COVID-19 orders by holding in-person worship services during the lockdown.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Friday evening denied the request of Spell of Life Tabernacle Church without referring the matter to the full court, Monroe News-Star reported.

Responding to the court’s denial, Spell told Fox News on Sunday, “Gov. John Bel Edwards has ignored the United States Constitution and the First Amendment. He’s ignored the Louisiana State Constitution. He has sued his own Louisiana legislature. At this time, the United States Supreme Court was not prepared to hear our case.

“We will appeal it to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where we have been two times already.”

In his petition, filed on Nov. 18, Spell argued that Gov. Edwards’ restrictions violated his First Amendment rights.

“The State has shown a shocking and unprecedented commitment to criminally prosecuting its strongest dissenter in violation of one of the First Amendment’s most precious guarantees: the right of a church, which by definition is an assembly, to decide whether to assemble or not,” the filing said, according to Fox News.

Gov. Edwards thanked the Supreme Court for rejecting Spell’s petition.

“Throughout the course of this pandemic, I have let science and data inform the many difficult decisions I have made regarding gathering sizes and other mitigation measures to slow the spread of COVID,” Edwards said in a statement.

“I have taken no such decisions lightly. The reasonable, legal mitigation measures have been necessary to protect the people of Louisiana from unchecked spread of the coronavirus, which would limit hospitals’ ability to deliver care.

“For months I have spoken and prayed with leaders of many faiths as we have navigated this pandemic together. I know how difficult this time has been for them and I am deeply appreciative of their commitment to practice their faiths even under trying circumstances and with the health of their congregations in mind.” 

Edwards also quoted Pope Francis as saying last week, “Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.”

Spell filed a lawsuit against the state in May after he was charged with violating COVID-19 restrictions, but lower courts ruled against him.

In September, Spell, who faced six misdemeanor charges for holding worship services attended by hundreds over the spring, was prevented from entering the 19th Judicial District Courthouse because he refused to wear a mask.

Through his lawyer, Spell pleaded not guilty to the charges at the hearing. A hearing for the case was scheduled for January 2021.

In Louisiana, there are currently 232,000 coronavirus cases and over 6,400 coronavirus-related deaths among a population of more than 4.64 million residents.

An elderly member of Life Tabernacle died after contracting the coronavirus in April, according to a coroner’s report. But Spell shot down the report as a “lie.”

In addition to the misdemeanor charges, Spell was arrested earlier this year and charged with aggravated assault after he allegedly backed up a church bus toward a man protesting his church’s defiance of the governor’s orders.

The pastor has previously claimed that he simply “approached” a man who had “verbally assaulted my wife and little girls” and argued he was being “persecuted for the faith.”

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