A Louisiana pastor who repeatedly defied state orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people by holding church services was charged with six misdemeanor counts of violating a state ban on non-essential gatherings.
Rev. Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in the city of Central, around 15 miles northeast of Baton Rouge, has held services twice a week despite the state orders. He claimed that up to 1,000 churchgoers, bussed in from five different Louisiana parishes, were in attendance.
Louisiana is one of the states most severely affected by coronavirus, with more than 5,000 cases and 239 deaths as of Tuesday, its deadliest day so far.
Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran called Spell’s decision to hold service despite the social distancing orders “reckless and irresponsible.”
“Instead of showing the strength and resilience of our community during this difficult time, Mr. Spell has chosen to embarrass us for his own self-promotion,” said Corcoran in a statement published on the city’s Facebook page.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a ban against gatherings of over 50 people, which he then expanded by issuing a statewide stay-at-home order for nonessential workers and businesses.
Spell was live-streamed as he was served the summons. After praying for the officers, Spell addressed viewers to respond to the charges.
“There are recommendations strongly given to us by our governing officials in our state, who have asked us to stand down from having church. We have respectfully disinclined. We will continue to have church.”
“I’ve heard from God, and I will continue to do what I am doing,” Spell said.
Earlier this month, Spell told CNN that calling churches a non-essential business is “a persecution of the faith.”
“This is not an issue over religious liberty, and it’s not about politics,” Corcoran wrote. “We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”
In Florida, another pastor was arrested for defying state orders prohibiting large gatherings.
Contributing: The Associated Press