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Churchgoers Flock to Hear Louisiana Pastor Despite Virus Ban

Congregants arrive for an evening service at the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., where Pastor Tony Spell says he will keep violating a ban on gatherings because God told him to, March 31, 2020.
Congregants arrive for an evening service at the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., where Pastor Tony Spell says he will keep violating a ban on gatherings because God told him to, March 31, 2020.

Buses and cars filled a Louisiana church parking lot for another service Tuesday evening as worshippers flocked to hear a Louisiana pastor who is facing misdemeanor charges for holding services despite a ban on gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A few protesters turned out, too, including a man shouting through a bullhorn against those gathering at the Life Tabernacle Church in the city of Central, where pastor Tony Spell has been holding services. Another demonstrator held up a sign reading: "God don't like stupid."

Afterward, people began leaving the church, some chatting outside the front doors, and many appearing to not be adhering to social distancing recommendations to remain at least six feet (2 meters) apart. Hugs and handshakes were shared freely as people said their goodbyes and departed.

Hours earlier on Tuesday, Spell was issued a summons for holding services previously at the church in violation of the governor's order banning gatherings.

"Come out, Tony. Come tell us why you're endangering people's lives," the man with the bullhorn shouted Tuesday evening, directing his words at the pastor.

Flanked by some of his congregation, including children and older people, Spell emerged from the church later Tuesday night and said he is going to keep his church doors open. He said he doesn't consider keeping his doors open any different than keeping the doors of Walmart open. Spell also compared going to church to going to the hospital, but for spiritual healing.

"We are needy people. Our souls are lost," he said. "We need help, and the church is the salvation center of the soul, the sanctuary where we come together and meet."

Around Louisiana, more than 5,200 people have confirmed virus infections, and 239 state residents have died, according to the Louisiana health department.

The order from Gov. John Bel Edwards prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people, said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore. Each violation carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine, Moore said.

"The whole situation just puts everyone at risk," Moore said. "We ask everyone to abide by the governor's order."

The governor has urged church leaders instead to continue their services online or in smaller groups to lessen the risks.

Spell had previously confirmed he was facing misdemeanor charges. He said when reached by phone earlier that he was read his rights and fingerprinted — but the summons wasn't deterring him. He said he would continue to defy the ban.

"We're still here and still assembling and having church," Spell said. Asked why he was defying the governor's orders, he said, "Because the Lord told us to."

Asked whether he was concerned about the pandemic, Spell said: "I'm no more concerned than I would be going to Walmart or Home Depot."

Moore said earlier that additional charges could be issued if Spell continued to disobey Edwards' ban on gatherings. He said the pastor wasn't booked into jail earlier because parish officials are trying to lessen the jail population amid the risks of the highly contagious virus.

Earlier, Central Assistant Police Chief Darren Sibley had said officers had no plans to try to stop Tuesday night's prayer service. But he said they would "document everything and forward everything to the district attorney."

"He is doing this for publicity," Sibley said of Spell. "He is putting the citizens of the community at risk. And he is putting the people in his congregation at risk."

Edwards has issued a "stay at home" order that he said he will extend through the end of April to combat the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, which is threatening to overwhelm hospitals with patients.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and be fatal.

Edwards said Tuesday that law enforcement authorities had been "extremely patient" with Spell and had "done everything that they could" to get him to comply with the governor's order before issuing the summons.

"I'm going to appeal to them one more time: Please stop what you're doing," Edwards said. "The overwhelming majority of our faith leaders have found other ways to engage with their parishioners."