A parishioner who regularly attended services at a Louisiana mega-church that has made national headlines for defying social-distancing orders has died from coronavirus complications—but the church’s pastor claims it’s all a lie.
Tony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, was issued a misdemeanor summons last month for repeatedly violating a state ban on large gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the charges, he has continued to hold services including an Easter Sunday gathering that he claimed 1,345 people attended.
He previously claimed that his church was not at risk of being infected because coronavirus was “politically motivated.” Ahead of his Easter service, he told Reuters: “Satan and a virus will not stop us... God will shield us from all harm and sickness. We are not afraid.”
However, a church usher, 78-year-old Harold Orillion, died in Baton Rouge’s Our Lady of the Lake Hospital on Wednesday. His cause of death was listed as “acute respiratory distress syndrome, 2nd pneumonia, 2nd COVID-19,” East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William ‘Beau’ Clark said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
Local lawyer Jeffrey Wittenbrink, who attended several church events during the pandemic and represented Life Tabernacle in its legal challenge to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ religious gatherings ban, also confirmed he was on oxygen support in a hospital on Thursday after testing positive for coronavirus.
Reached by phone by TV station WAFB, Spell disputed the coroner’s cause of death finding for Orillion. “That is a lie,” he said, without elaborating. He told another station, WVLA, which first reported on the death, that Orillion “died of a broken heart” after the parishioner’s son died the previous week, triggering early onset Parkinson’s in Orillion.
“Harold did not have Coronavirus, he was never on ventilator, he did not have COVID-19,” he said.
Wittenbrink had made numerous Facebook posts criticizing Louisiana’s lockdown restrictions and defending Spell’s right to continue holding large services. “Will the government stop the virus? Or will God stop the virus? Jesus healed the sick. Mother Teresa and countless saints have attended the sick. We are quarantining the healthy,” he wrote in one post.
He wrote that many members of Spell’s congregation were poor, had no internet access, and were bused in to worship “because they have no cars, and he feeds them—not just spiritual food, but regular food as well.” He said Spell “is not being narcissistic, he is serving his flock.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast from his hospital bed on Thursday, he said he felt bad for potentially infecting others but remained defiant in his support of the church.
“These restrictions are out of control,” he said. “Some governors think these emergency powers give them carte blanche... We should not give up our God-given rights so easily.”
He said he attended Life Tabernacle on Easter Sunday along with Orillion, who was a lead usher. “He was vibrant, he was literally bouncing around the church, he was very happy to be where he was,” Wittenbrink said, adding that he thought Orillion would “probably have been happy” that attending church was one of his final activities.
“He could’ve got [coronavirus] anywhere, like I did. It could have been at Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, all places I went to where there was no social distancing going on,” he said. At the church, parishioners get their temperature taken, are given hand sanitizer, and sit six feet apart, he added.
Wittenbrink serves as local counsel for former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who is helping Spell to challenge Edwards’ statewide lockdown. He was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday after suffering a high fever and persistent cough, and said Friday that he hopes to be discharged on Sunday.
Spell did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.
To curb an unexpected explosion of coronavirus cases in the state, Edwards implemented a statewide “stay-at-home” order in March that, among other restrictions, banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
He called those who violate the ban selfish and “grossly irresponsible,” and said on Thursday that the state would not be among the first states to reopen based on the White House guidance released by President Donald Trump.
As of Thursday, there were at least 22,532 confirmed cases and 1,156 deaths in the state.
After charging Spell in March, Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said the pastor had made “reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community.”
“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,” he said in a March 31 statement.
Spell has remained defiant, however, suggesting in an interview with TMZ that if any church members die from coronavirus, they’ll be doing so in the name of God and freedom. “People that can prefer tyranny over freedom do not deserve freedom,” he said.
In a video posted on Wednesday, Spell asked parishioners to donate their $1,200 federal stimulus check to the church. In another video posted on Friday morning, he dedicated a song to people “who’ve really been going through some storms and trials.”