The Supreme Court of Louisiana, the highest court in the state, handed down a ruling on Friday, May 13, in favor of a pastor who resisted the governor’s mandate to stop in-person church gatherings. The court deemed the emergency orders unconstitutional with respect to the First Amendment.
In spring 2020, when states across the U.S. were enforcing tyrannical, overreaching COVID lockdowns, a pastor in Central City, LA, decided that the call to stop in-person church services would not be obeyed by his congregation. Tony Spell, who leads Life Tabernacle Church, used critical thinking and deductive reasoning to conclude that it made no sense to allow large retailers, large corporations, and other specified organizations to remain open while closing down church buildings. In response, police were sent to arrest and jail Spell in April 2020 on trumped up charges of aggravated assault for backing up a church bus near a protester yelling obscenities at churchgoers outside their gathering. The protester was angry that they weren’t bowing down in obedience to the government. Spell was also charged with disobeying the governor’s emergency orders and other misdemeanors.
The state district court and appellate court ruled in favor of the governor, so Spell appealed to the state’s Supreme Court since he recognized the unfairness of the lower courts’ orders which prohibited him from traveling even after the COVID restrictions were lifted. The justice who wrote the majority opinion stated in part:
We interpret Pastor Spell’s request not as one for special treatment, but for equal treatment… We reject any contention that early in a crisis, the Constitution’s protection of fundamental rights must always yield to the needs of the state to respond to the crisis. A public health emergency does not relegate the First Amendment to a proposition or allow violations thereof to be judged on a sliding scale of constitutionality. The infringement of the fundamental right of the free exercise of religion, whether in times of crisis or calm, must always be strictly scrutinized by our courts.
In response to the ruling, Spell’s attorney, Jeff Wittenbrink, said, “When there’s an emergency, the justices made it clear that the Governor has to pay attention to those rights we have that are protected by the constitution. The next time there is an emergency, the governor or the executives, or whoever is making the decisions will pay a lot more attention to the free rights of individuals.”
Now that all charges have been reversed by the decision, Spell feels vindicated for standing his ground during the 27-month battle and considers this “one of the greatest victories of our lifetime.” He is now planning a victory sermon for Sunday.
I share this story in spite of the fact I disagree with Tony Spell’s religious beliefs. He’s a oneness Apostolic Pentecostal who denies that our one true God is a Trinity. However, I firmly believe in the First Amendment and the religious freedoms it upholds. No government official has the right to mess with these rights.
Spell’s ordeal can teach some valuable lessons and reminds me of what Christ’s followers faced and how they responded in the Bible. When Peter and his companions were unjustly arrested and jailed in Acts 4, they used it as an opportunity to present the gospel, standing firm on their faith without apology and defending their beliefs. On the various occasions Paul was arrested or had to go to court, he also shared his Christian beliefs, mounted a proper legal defense, appealed to higher courts when he felt the need, and clearly stated and invoked his rights as a citizen of the Roman Empire. As these end times get worse for Christians, we should be prepared for the possibility of being targeted for our beliefs by people in power who may make up pretexts to use against us or by angry mobs who object to the gospel message and stir up trouble. Even if we don’t have what is perceived as a victorious outcome, defending ourselves for the Lord’s sake is worth it, serving as a testimony and encouragement for others.
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying,
Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.
Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure. Psalm 2:1-5
Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth mischief by a law? They gather themselves together against the soul of the righteous, and condemn the innocent blood.
But the Lord is my defence; and my God is the rock of my refuge. And he shall bring upon them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness; yea, the Lord our God shall cut them off. Psalm 94: 20-23
Elizabeth Vowell and Kevin Foster, FOX8Live.com, May 13, 2022.
Louisiana Supreme Court, State of Louisiana vs. Mark Anthony Spell, May 13, 2022.