Local Police, Courts Caught Short as Louisiana Pastor Continues Holding Services Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Josiah Bates

Despite multiple misdemeanor charges and an order placing him under house arrest, a pastor in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana suburb continues to flout both local authorities and the state’s shelter-in-place order by holding large church services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran says it’s no longer his decision as to whether to re-arrest Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church. “That’s an order that has to come down from the judge,” Corcoran tells TIME.

“We’re not having any trouble with our [other] citizens. We’re only having trouble with the pastor,” Chief Corcoran says — as well as the hundreds of parishioners who attend the Life Tabernacle Church. Spell has been asked to conduct his services online, as other religious groups in the area are doing, Corcoran adds, but has “chosen not to.”

Read more: ‘It’s Like a Lifeline.’ How Religious Leaders Are Helping People Stay Connected in a Time of Isolation

Spell was arrested on April 21 on charges including aggravated assault after an incident in which he drove his church bus towards a man protesting his decision to continue to hold in-person services. (Before his arrest, the police department had cited Spell multiple times for violating shelter-in-place orders.)

Tony Spell eaves East Baton Rouge Parish jail after posting bond in Baton Rouge, La., on April 21, 2020 | Gerald Herbert—AP
Tony Spell eaves East Baton Rouge Parish jail after posting bond in Baton Rouge, La., on April 21, 2020 | Gerald Herbert—AP

According to the Central Louisiana police department, Spell was later released on bond and placed under house arrest on April 25. The conditions of his house arrest specifically mandated that he not leave his residence to go to the Life Tabernacle Church, legal documents filed by District Attorney’s office show. This past Sunday, April 26, however, Spell held a service there featuring congregants, some teary-eyed, tightly packed in pews. While preaching, he showed off his ankle monitor.

According to legal documents, Pastor Spell spent over seven hours at the church on Sunday — four hours in the morning, and three in the evening — while wearing the ankle monitor, in violation of the court’s order.

“God gave you an immune system to kill the virus,” Spell said at the Sunday service, according to The Advocate. “I’m not going to bind the virus.”

The Life Tabernacle Church did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

“The defendant’s actions constitute contemptuous conduct and are in violation of his bail undertaking,” Special Assistant District Attorney Darrel J. Papillion wrote in documents filed with the 19th Judicial District Court on April 28. Papillion argued that “this Honorable Court [should] order the defendant… to appear and show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court and/or his bail obligation be revoked.”

(Papillion had filed a similar motion on April 24, after a prior instance in which Spell held a large service.)

In an April 27 order, District Judge Fred Crifasi had called for the “prompt” scheduling of a contempt bond hearing — but only once courts open in line with Louisiana’s plan to reopen as a state, according to documents provided to TIME.

Citing “the extraordinary measures being taken at the [parish prison] to manage the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Crifasi wrote that Spell should remain under house arrest over being remanded to jail, so as to “avoid the exposure of the captive population to the defendant.” While his order notes that “further violations” would be addressed by the court separately, it does not appear that he has responded to the April 28 filing as of April 30.

Crifasi did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment on the matter. Per the Associated Press, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III has said his office had no plans to otherwise pursue the matter.

Busses of congregants arrive at the Life Tabernacle Church before church services on April 12, 2020 in Central, Louisiana. | Chris Graythen—Getty Images
Busses of congregants arrive at the Life Tabernacle Church before church services on April 12, 2020 in Central, Louisiana. | Chris Graythen—Getty Images

Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group, has called for churches to reopen on Sunday, May 3. “The lockdowns have closed churches at a time of greatest need, and they must reopen to meet the burgeoning needs of the community,” Liberty Counsel’s founder Mat Staver said in a statement.

While it remains unclear to what, if any, extent churches across the country will do so, it could lead to other police departments facing similar problems. An Illinois church which has said it will open on Sunday has filed a lawsuit against Ill. Gov. JB Pritzker over the state’s stay-at-home order, arguing that it is unconstitutional.

On April 29, Pastor Spell’s mother, Magi Spell, posted the department’s phone number (along with phone numbers for Louisiana’s two U.S. senators, Attorney General William Barr, and the White House) on her Facebook page as part of a “FREE PASTOR TONY SPELL” campaign. Later that same day, the Central Police department posted a statement on their Facebook page, apologizing to residents who may have been blocked from getting in touch due to their phones being overwhelmed.

“This phone number is the line we receive all of our calls on, including our emergency calls from Citizens needing our assistance or help due to a life-changing emergency,” the statement said.

The stay-at-home order in Louisiana is currently in effect until May 15, meaning that there will be at least three more Sundays in which Spell could hold services before a court date is scheduled (subject to no further orders from the local courts). Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said on April 29 that some infection rates in parts of the state have not shown enough progress to reopen before then. “The worst thing I can do is ignore the reality and pretend we’re in a better place than we are,” Governor Edwards said.

One member of Spell’s church has died of COVID-19, according to The Advocate — though Spell has disputed this — and a lawyer who represents the church was hospitalized on April 14 from the virus.

Louisiana has 28,001 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of April 30, and 1,862 deaths.