BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — The pastor of Life of Tabernacle Church, Tony Spell, has been battling against state attorneys suing Governor John Bel Edwards over pandemic restrictions for three years.
Spell lost to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals but said he will bring the lawsuit to the United States Supreme Court.
Spell was arrested in 2020 after refusing to follow Governor John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home restrictions during the pandemic. He claimed that the church is never closed, always open, and will remain open. The pandemic restrictions set limits on gatherings at church services and other activities that were considered to be “non-essential.”
In May of 2022, The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of Spell, who continued to hold large church gatherings during the pandemic lockdown. Spell and the people of his church called it “a day of celebration.”
The governor shared a statement in response to the ruling back in May.
“While the Governor disagrees with the Court’s ruling and maintains that his orders were both necessary and lawful, he is accepting of 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 Governor worked closely with faith leaders throughout the pandemic, and all were encouraged to hold services as safely as possible to protect their congregations. Fortunately, we have made great strides since then thanks to the safe, effective and widely available vaccines as well as other mitigation measures and therapeutics, but we must never forget the more than 17,000 Louisianans who have died from the virus nor those who were either hospitalized or suffered serious illness as a result of it.”Office of John Bel Edwards
On Feb. 17, 2023, Spell filed a lawsuit against Governor Edwards, Central Police Chief Rodger Corcoran, and East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux. In the lawsuit, Spell wanted damages and a judgment declaring the governor’s proclamation unconstitutional.
Spell said there were numerous charges against him for violating the governor’s pandemic restrictions. He would have faced more than a year in prison, for violating six misdemeanors. Spell had to wear an ankle monitor while on house arrest, and he said there were nine federal cameras on the property watching to see if he would leave out his front door.
Read the full lawsuit below.
Recently, The federal appeals court dismissed Spell’s lawsuit, quoting from the documents, “Pastor Spell instead advanced an absolute, categorical theory of the religion clauses, arguing that church assembly is “beyond the jurisdiction of the government.”
Spell reiterated that the legal theory being advanced is a strict jurisdictional theory. He presented to the Court of Appeals that under Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, there is a “jurisdictional limit on intrusion by the state into the church.”
The judges said that “his victory was all but assured” had Spell and his legal team used an equal legal argument rather than a jurisdictional argument. During the pandemic, churches with large congregations were not allowed and considered to be non-essential. However, places like grocery stores were considered “essential” and were allowed to remain open.
The last page of the lawsuit (Page 8), describes the cases that were used in Spell’s argument, describing the treatment of closing down places of worship violates the constitution.
“Had Pastor Spell’s counsel not affirmatively waived Church of the Lukeumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah argument, his victory was all but assured,” the appeals judge wrote in the ruling. They also state, “But oddly, Pastor Spell’s counsel insisted on taking a loss.”
“Was what they called a loss, was really a win,” said Spell. “We did not insist on taking a loss, we insisted on a jurisdiction argument instead of an equal argument.”
Spell and his group of attorneys plan to take this lawsuit to the United States Supreme Court. To ask for a review of the case and question how much the government can intervene in church services.
“As long as we have people in a strong congregation that is willing to stand up, be in prison, take on lawsuits, we’ll never lose,” said Spell.
Pastor Spell and his team of lawyers are filing to the United States Supreme court in 30 days.