- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 31, 2020

BATON ROUGE, La. — A Louisiana pastor charged with six misdemeanors for holding church services in violation of a ban put in place to control the coronavirus said Tuesday that he would continue to ignore the ban because God told him to.

Pastor Tony Spell was issued a summons Tuesday for holding services at the Life Tabernacle church in the city of Central in violation of an order from Gov. John Bel Edwards prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people, said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore. Each violation carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine, Moore said.

“The whole situation just puts everyone at risk,” Moore said. “We ask everyone to abide by the governor’s order.”

Spell, reached by telephone Tuesday, confirmed he was read his rights and fingerprinted - but the summons wasn’t deterring him. Another service was scheduled Tuesday night that he said was expected to draw hundreds.

“We’re still here and still assembling and having church,” Spell said. Asked why he was defying the governor’s orders, he said, “Because the Lord told us to.”

Asked whether he was concerned about the pandemic, Spell said: “I’m no more concerned than I would be going to Walmart or Home Depot.”

Moore said additional charges could be issued if Spell continued to disobey Edwards’ ban on gatherings. He said the pastor wasn’t booked into jail because parish officials are trying to lessen the jail population amid the risks of the highly contagious virus.

Central Assistant Police Chief Darren Sibley said officers would not try to stop Tuesday night’s prayer service but would “document everything and forward everything to the district attorney.”

“He is doing this for publicity,” Sibley said of Spell. “He is putting the citizens of the community at risk. And he is putting the people in his congregation at risk.”

Edwards has issued a “stay at home” order that he said he will extend through the end of April to combat the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, which is threatening to overwhelm hospitals with patients.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and be fatal.

More than 5,200 people in Louisiana have confirmed virus infections, and 239 state residents have died, according to the Louisiana health department.

Edwards has urged church leaders to continue their services online or in smaller groups to lessen the risks.

“Even if your leader is not being a leader, please abide by the governor’s clear warning,” Moore urged congregants. “This is not about religion and the rights of church and assembly. All the other churches in Louisiana have shown that there are other ways to handle this.”


Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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