Legal scholar: Louisiana can shut down church defying COVID-19 orders

Preacher held services hours after arrest

Dave Cohen, WWL First News early edition
April 01, 2020 - 2:06 pm

The battle between authorities and Rev. Tony Spell at Life Tabernacle Church in East Baton Rouge Parish is getting more heated.

Police in the town of Central, Louisiana issued Spell six citations for violating Governor John Bel Edwards order for people to stay home and not gather in groups of more than ten people anywhere in the state. 

Reports indicate that on half a dozen occasions since the proclamation, Spell held services with more than 1,100 congregants.  

Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran says Spell has now been summoned.

“Well a summons is an arrest, so he was arrested for six counts of violation of the Governor’s emergency order.  That is an arrest.  He did sign the summons and give his fingerprint,” said Corcoran.

Spell has not been jailed for his actions.  Corcoran says they’ve tried to give Spell warnings before and attempted to resolve the manner by other means throughout the week.

“We’ve talked to him repeatedly.  I’ve talked to him myself personally.  Myself and my assistant chief.  It’s all in the statement.  The Sheriff and Tony Perkins, our mayor, has talked to him this week,” said Corcoran.

Corcoran says the public’s health and safety should priority number one and Spell’s continued actions were directly working against that.

“He’s doing this for publicity and that’s not what it is about.  It is about the health.  When you are having these functions with all of these people, they are going out into the community and are going to be amongst other people and they are going to spread this virus,” said Corcoran.

Just hours after his arrest, Spell did it again.  He hosted another church service with packed pews and no effort to enforce social distancing.

Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino says the state can shut down Spell's services.

"Although we have Constitutional rights, they essentially take a back seat to this public health crisis we are all living through," the legal scholar explained.

Spell defended his actions.

"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."

Spell told CBS News that 1,265 people went to his church on Sunday, and he defended their assembly. 

"We have a constitutional right to congregate," Spell said in an email on Monday. "We will continue."  

Ciolino says while the First Amendment to the Constitution bans government from prohibiting people from gathering peacefully, the rules don't apply as the country battles the coronavirus.  

"The First Amendment gives us all a right to peaceably assemble," he noted.  However, he added that during an emergency, "The state has the police power to force quarantines, to force isolation, to force curfews."

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