May 16, 2022 — The Louisiana Supreme Court has dismissed criminal charges against a pastor who defied Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions in 2020.
By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor
The high court’s 5-2 ruling found the governor’s executive orders limiting gatherings, first to 50 people then to 10, violated Rev. Tony Spell’s religious freedoms.
Spell drew national attention when he was arrested for ignoring Edwards’ COVID-19 edicts to hold Sunday service at his Life Tabernacle Church, where more than 1,200 people reportedly attended.
“Pandemic or not, this court cannot look the other way when the state infringes upon a citizen’s fundamental right to exercise his religion,” the justices wrote in the decision released Friday, quoting Article I of the state constitution: “All government originates with the people, is founded on their will alone and is instituted to protect the rights of the individual and for the good of the whole.”
“In granting power to the government, our citizens not only reserved the right to freely exercise religion, they instructed this right ‘be preserved inviolate by the state,'” the ruling read. “As judges, we have no more solemn duty than to protect the fundamental rights reserved by the people from government overreach.”
Spell applauded the ruling, according to The Associated Press.
“This is a tremendous win for religious civil liberties and it has vindicated us in our … battle with the governor trying to close the churches down,” Spell said.
Edwards issued a statement on Friday that disagreed with the ruling, but accepted it.
“Each and every action Gov. Edwards took throughout the COVID pandemic was done with the goal of protecting the public’s health and saving lives. Gov. Edwards has always recognized the importance of places of worship during COVID, which is why they were never closed while the public health emergency was in place,” the statement read.
“The governor worked closely with faith leaders throughout the pandemic, and all were encouraged to hold services as safely as possible to protect their congregation,” it continued.
Attorney General Jeff Landry, who filed a friend of the court brief in support of Spell, offered a different perspective.
“Once again, this governor’s overreach has been defeated in court. While it is unfortunate that it took almost two years, I am appreciative that John Bel’s unconstitutional actions have been halted by the court,” Landry said. “This is a victory for the separation of powers and our free exercise clause.
“What’s more: it is a great highlight of John Bel’s hypocrisy — punishing prayer service but not food service in the mall.”
The ruling in Spell’s case comes about four months after a federal court rejected a lawsuit he filed against Edwards over the COVID-19 restrictions. Baton Rouge-based U.S. District Court Judge Brian Jackson rejected Spell’s request for damages from state officials and denied the pastor’s request for an order blocking the restrictions, which the court found moot because they expired well before the ruling.
The U.S. Supreme Court also turned down his case when it listed it in December among nearly 200 it would not hear, according to the AP.