A Louisiana pastor was charged Tuesday after repeatedly violating a state ban on large gatherings amid the coronavirus panic, authorities said.
Mark Anthony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, was issued a misdemeanor summons for six counts of violating the governor’s executive order, the Central Police Department told The Daily Beast. The counts are for each of the religious services Spell held after March 16, when Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the order banning gatherings over 50 people.
“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,” Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Mr. Spell will have his day in court where he will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community.”
Authorities said Spell’s last service was held on Sunday, when the pastor hosted about 500 worshippers at the church in Central, a city about 20 minutes from Baton Rouge. The pastor previously told WMTV he did not believe his congregation was at risk of getting the virus—which has infected more than 177,400 people and killed 3,600 nationwide—because he believed the virus was “politically motivated.”
“It’s not a concern,” Spell said last Tuesday after another service. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
Corcoran said that “over the last two weeks,” his office had worked with the local sheriff’s office, State Police, State Fire Marshal, and others, to address the matter “outside of legal action” because Spell continued to hold church services that garnered thousands.
Spell, the chief said, had “made his intentions to continue to violate the law clear.”
“This is not an issue over religious liberty, and it’s not about politics,” Corcoran added. “We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”
Spell did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment but a video posted to his personal Youtube showed two deputies giving him the summons on Tuesday. After praying with the two officers, Spell, speaking to a phone camera several feet away, said he intended to “continue to have church” despite the legal action.
“This is a government overreach. They are asking us as a government to stop practicing our freedom of religion. We have a mandate from God to assemble and to gather together and to keep doing what we are doing,” Spell said in the video. “I will continue to do what I am doing. Don’t fight us, pray for us.”
While New York remains the epicenter of the novel coronavirus in the United States, several states across the country are also managing an explosive growth of infected residents—including Louisiana.
Officials are seeing an inexplicable growth rate of new cases in New Orleans, about an hour from Spell’s congregation, that is faster than any city worldwide—potentially putting it on track to be the next national epicenter.
In an attempt to curtail the spread of the virus, Edwards is among 22 state officials who have implemented emergency “stay-at-home” orders, directing all residents to remain inside except when they need to retrieve essential supplies and limited exercise. As of Tuesday, Louisiana had more than 5,200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 239 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“I'm a person of faith,” Edwards said in his March announcement. “I happen to believe very much in the awesome power of prayer. I also believe in science, and the scientists at the CDC say that the measures we are taking will minimize the spread.”
After Spell’s blatant disregard for the governor’s order, an online petition surfaced calling for the pastor’s arrest and prosecution. To date, the petition that states Spell should be charged “for the countless lives he will be brutalizing and even ending with this selfishness and ignorance,” has more than 10,000 signatures.
Spell is not the first religious leader to be criminally charged for flouting rules implemented to curtail the pandemic. On Monday, Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was charged with misdemeanor counts of unlawful assembly and violation of public health rules after holding services at The River at Tampa Bay church.
Authorities said the controversial Florida pastor—an ally of President Donald Trump who has been outspoken about social distancing requirements—refused to stop holding church services because he believed his church had machines that could stop the virus. He vowed to personally cure his state of the virus.