Controversial Louisiana pastor Tony Spell, who has defied state stay-at-home orders by holding church services, has been arrested for aggravated assault after he allegedly backed up a church bus toward a protester.
The police department in the city of Central near Baton Rouge issued a warrant for the Pentecostal pastor on Monday. On Tuesday, Spell was taken into custody outside of Life Tabernacle Church and transported to East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, according to WAFB.
The pastor has made national headlines in recent weeks as he already faced several misdemeanor charges for holding in-person worship services attended by hundreds despite bans on mass gatherings to combat the spread of COVID-19.
But now, Spell is accused of rapidly backing up a large church bus on the shoulder of a public road outside of the church and nearly hitting a protester.
A video of the incident shows the church bus being backed up at a seemingly rapid pace in the direction in which a protester was standing with a picket sign. Not until the bus was a few feet from striking the protester were the brakes rapidly applied and the bus brought to a halt.
Trey Bennett, the protester in the video, told WAFB that he first thought Spell was just turning around the bus to pull away.
“[B]ut he just kept coming in reverse,” Bennett said. “I could see him (Spell) driving the bus. He was honking his horn loudly at me and making gestures suggesting he was yelling while he was driving. It didn’t seem real until it was physically in my face with a bus.”
Spell’s attorney, Joseph Long, told NBC News that his client did not try to run over the protester.
"A fair viewing of the video will prove that Spell did not attempt to run over the protester, and the protester did not feel threatened, as he never moved when the bus came near," Long was quoted as saying.
According to WVLA, investigators say that an unnamed security guard also drove a pick-up truck onto the same shoulder dangerously close to the protester. The security guard also reportedly faces a charge of aggravated assault.
Long said that he believes Spell will be vindicated.
According to The Washington Post, Spell wrote in a text message to one of its reporters Monday night that he would not surrender and that authorities will have to take him out of his church.
Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran told the newspaper that Spell was “trying to intimidate the protester.”
Spell claimed that he just finished dropping off church members before the encounter with the protester.
“I approached a man who verbally assaulted my wife and little girls,” Spell claimed in his correspondence with The Washington Post. “He’s a crotch-grabbing, middle-finger using against my church ladies.”
“What would you do to a man like that?” Spell said.
Bennett denied the accusation that he uses profanity or obscene gestures in his demonstrations.
“I haven’t done anything of the sort. I just stand there with a sign,” Bennett told WAFB. “I don’t say anything to anybody.”
Spell also reportedly claimed that he reported the presence of the protester on the public road outside of the church every day for the last few weeks but police have not responded to the complaints.
“This is the proudest day of my life to be persecuted for the faith,” Spell was quoted as saying, before threatening to block The Washington Post reporter on his phone after he was asked if he thought the bus incident was an “act of faith.”
Spell told WAFB that he drove the bus and wanted to confront the protester. However, he claims that his wife, who was with him on the bus at the time, talked him out of confronting the protester.
“I was pulling in from my bus route, picking up black children who haven’t eaten because of this sinister policy that has closed schools,” Spell told WAFB. “I was going to approach this gentleman and ask him to leave.”
While many churches nationwide have suspended in-person services and shifted their ministries online to help combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, Spell’s church is among a small defiant minority that is continuing to hold services.
Supporters have argued that it is a First Amendment right to be able to gather for worship.
However, some religious freedom advocates and even Vice President Mike Pence have called for religious adherents to avoid large in-person worship services during the pandemic.
Among advocates who have advised against in-person services is U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Chair Tony Perkins, a prominent Christian conservative activist from Louisiana.
Chief Corcoran told The Washington Post that Spell had spoken with Perkins and agreed to abide by Gov. John Bel Edward’s stay-at-home order but has not upheld the agreement.
“He’s trying to hide behind the First Amendment,” Corcoran was quoted as saying. “No one has asked him not to preach the word or preach a service. We just ask that he adhere to the order that was given by the governor and the president, put it on social media or FaceTime like the other churches, but he’s refused to do that.”
A lawyer who represents Spell, Jeff Wittenbrink, was hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms last week. It was also reported that a member of Life Tabernacle died because of coronavirus. However, Spell has disputed the cause of death.