New court date set for Central megachurch pastor accused of flouting pandemic rules

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First Amendment vs. COVID restrictions. Worship services were among the most contentious issues of barring gatherings. Many churches and their congregations found creative ways to get around needing and indoor venue by holding services outside for the summer or setting up an in vehicle service where participants could listen on radio or an app while viewing the pastor. Others broadcast live via Facebook, Instagram, etc.

But some chose to keep holding services in person, using masks and hand washing and other precautions, but not denying their congregations the access. Especially for older congregants or those without or limited tech access this became the only reasonable method of continuing their access to masses and services.

This resulted in a court fight in Louisiana

KTBS writes,

NEW ORLEANS – With the Louisiana Supreme Court weighing whether to allow criminal charges go forward against him, a Central pastor who challenged state coronavirus restrictions was back in front of a Baton Rouge courtroom Tuesday while his attorney met briefly with a judge and prosecutors inside.

Attorneys for the Rev. Tony Spell are trying to throw out six counts accusing him of violating the state’s emergency pandemic restrictions.

Spell held religious services inside his Life Tabernacle Church off Hooper Road during the thick of the state’s most restrictive virus-related limits on public gatherings in March 2020. That was well before vaccines became available and the virus was more understood.

Pastor Tony Spell, of Life Tabernacle Church, makes a strident appeal to spectators during a recess for executive committee time, during meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), Wednesday August 18, 2021, before the meeting was adjourned because of disorderly conduct by spectators refusing to wear masks. (Photo by Travis Spradling, The Advocate)

Since his early clashes over Gov. John Bel Edwards’ restrictions, Spell has become an outspoken critic of a variety of pandemic safety rules, recently showing up at a state education board meeting to oppose mask requirements.

State District Judge Eboni Johnson Rose denied Spell’s request in January.

In late May, a three-judge panel of the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal denied Spell’s initial challenge at this early stage in the case.

Spell’s appeal, which protests the restrictions on First Amendment grounds, is now before the state Supreme Court.

His defense lawyer, Jeffrey Wittenbrink, said the high court has had the appeal for some time. On Tuesday, Judge Johnson Rose agreed to continue proceedings to Jan. 18 to give the Supreme Court time to rule.

While Wittenbrink was inside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse, Spell and many of his followers stood outside in the median on North Boulevard, where they have often shown up during hearings on his cases. The courthouses requires masks for entry; Spell and his supporters refuse to wear them.

With misdemeanor charges, Wittenbrink said, attorneys are often allowed waive their client’s court appearances before trial.

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