Louisiana pastor cited for defying coronavirus order hosts hundreds on Palm Sunday

A Louisiana pastor accused of violating government orders to limit crowds during the coronavirus pandemic hosted hundreds of churchgoers on Palm Sunday, according to police.

Pastor Tony Spell welcomed worshipers at Life Tabernacle Church in Central, near Baton Rouge.

Spell has already been hit with six misdemeanors for the six services he has held since March 16 when Gov. John Bel Edwards announced an order against gatherings of more than 50 people.

Spell, who could not immediately be reached Monday, has previously said that the public health orders are a threat to religious freedoms and constitutional rights.

Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Baton Rouge (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

He has also said that he believes the pandemic is "politically motivated."

Spell told CNN that on Palm Sunday, he hosted 1,220 churchgoers, including some who drove more than 100 miles to attend services.

Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran told NBC News on Monday that Spell held two separate services at the church on Palm Sunday and that the pastor continues to inflate the number of people who attended.

"He has done that since day one," Corcoran said during a phone interview. "At the most, he had 500. Between the two."

Corcoran said Spell does not appear to intend to stop holding services and is still under investigation. The chief also said police were aware of the large services Sunday but did not enter the church or attempt to break them up.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay-at-home order for the state on March 22.

When asked during an interview with CNN's Victor Blackwell if he believed in the science behind the governor's orders, Spell said, "We believe the science of this, however, we do have a command from God and there are no governing bodies that can tell us we cannot gather and worship freely."

Blackwell asked Spell why, if the pastor is pro-life, he would "put people in jeopardy of getting a virus that has no treatment, no cure, often has no symptoms and has killed more than 8,500 people" in the United States in five weeks?

"My response to that is: People's hope is in the house of God. If they do contract the virus, if they have fears of the virus, the church is more essential now than ever to pray with people, to let them know there is ... a physician in Jesus Christ," Spell said.

Edwards said at a news conference Monday that while there is still a high number of coronavirus cases in Louisiana, "we are hopeful that we are seeing the beginning of the flattening of the curve." The governor noted that the stay-at-home order is an effective mitigation tactic. There have been 14,687 cases of the coronavirus reported in Louisiana, with at least 512 deaths.

When the charges against Spell were announced last week, the police chief said Spell made clear his intentions to continue to violate the law.

"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," Corcoran said.