Louisiana Pentecostal Pastor Tony Spell, who was charged for violating state orders by holding in-person worship services during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, was prevented from entering a courthouse Tuesday because he refused to wear a mask.
Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, appeared at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse as he faced six misdemeanor charges for violating Gov. John Bel Edwards’ social distancing orders banning worship gatherings of more than 10 people by holding services attended by hundreds over the spring.
The pastor told reporters outside the courthouse that he missed the hearing because he refused to comply with the requirements to wear a face mask in the courthouse. Through his lawyer, Spell pleaded not guilty to the charges as he was not required to appear in court. A hearing for the case has been set for January 2021.
Outside the courthouse, Spell gathered with unmasked supporters.
“I was refused entry into the courthouse because I refuse to put a mask on,” Spell said, according to WVLA. “Take a look at our church, we are healthy, we are strong, we are unmasked, we are not social distancing and we are not complying.”
The Advocate reports that Spell also said that the court fight is over “religious and civil liberties.”
"What is at stake? We lose our right to assemble,” he said, according to Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper.
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In the spring, Spell was one of the first pastors to gain national notoriety for continuing to hold in-person worship services in defiance of Edwards’ order to shut down in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
In Louisiana, there have been over 160,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 5,400 coronavirus-related deaths among a population of more than 4.64 million residents, according to Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.
An elderly member of Life Tabernacle died after contracting coronavirus in April, according to a coroner’s report. But Spell shot down the report as a “lie.”
Spell has faced much scrutiny for his defiance of health orders and other behaviors.
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.”
While the church bus matter remains pending, Spell had been ordered to remain at home as a condition for his bail. However, Spell broke house arrest by continuing to hold in-person church services.
According to The Advocate, Spell was charged with two counts of being a fugitive from justice because he violated his house arrest. No future court date has been set in that matter.
In May, Spell sued local and state officials. He has maintained that the state’s worship restrictions violated the First Amendment rights of his congregation. However, a federal judge refused his request to halt the governor’s stay-at-home order.
In a video statement to his congregation on Sept. 3, Spell announced that he was served a day earlier with the six arraignment notices. He did not express regret over his defiance of the order.
“I only regret that I don’t have more of these since we have 33 of these to go, meaning that is how many times we broke the governor’s emergency orders,” Spell explained, adding that he plans to frame the court notices and add them to the “collection” in his “trophy case” of other legal and criminal documents.
Spell said he had “great attorneys” who sit around all day praying about ways to “sue these other attorneys who have charged me.”
He ended the video by encouraging followers to “keep those masks off of your smiling faces.”
“Don’t let anybody intimidate you, bully you and make you feel less than who you are,” he said. “You are peculiar, royal, chosen and holy.”