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Rev. Spell Asserts Rights, Shirks Duties

Rev. Tony Spell says he's not going to stop holding large church gatherings (WAFB screenshot)

Local news in Baton Rouge had a story about a big church in the suburbs that refuses to stop having services, even though large gatherings under these pandemic conditions break the law. Excerpts:

The pastor of a Louisiana church who says he believes the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is “politically motivated” defied government orders and welcomed hundreds of people into his church service Tuesday evening (March 17).

The gathering directly defied an order by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards that bans groups larger than 50 from gathering at any one time, including in churches. President Donald Trump has recommended no groups larger than 10.

The pastor, Rev. Tony Spell, says police showed up at the church after the service telling him the National Guard would break up any future services with more than 50 people gathered. Spell says 305 people attended the service in the sanctuary Tuesday night.


Tuesday’s service was held at Life Tabernacle Church in the City of Central, located in East Baton Rouge Parish. Rev. Spell says he does not believe his congregation is at risk of getting COVID-19.

“It’s not a concern,” Spell said of the virus. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore says those violating the governor’s proclamation could face prosecution as a last resort. Reverend Spell is not concerned with that and boasted he had an even larger crowd this past weekend, days after the governor’s proclamation was issued.

“I had 1,170 in attendance Sunday,” Spell said. “We have 27 buses on Sundays picking up people in a five parish area,” he said.

The governor said at a press conference:

“I’m a person of faith,” the governor said. “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.”

See, or read, it all. 

In the news story, the church hands out some kind of magical prayer handkerchief, which the pastor says will give congregants special spiritual protection against the virus.

It’s all so shameful and infuriating. I hope it doesn’t come to this, but if the police have to arrest this pastor, I’ll applaud it. This is not a matter of religious liberty, but of public safety in a true emergency. In Louisiana, we are a poor state to begin with. The price of oil, upon which our state economy largely depends, is collapsing. Tourism, also a main generator of revenue, is in freefall (talked to a friend this morning in the tourism biz; he’s shutting down his company, because there is no chance of it doing any business for the foreseeable future). We are not going to have the money to take care of all the people who get sick from this thing. But this pastor, who is convinced that the virus is a political hoax, and is determined to make himself out to be a religious liberty hero, is working to increase suffering and immensely burden the common good.

These Christians at that church aren’t putting themselves on the line to serve the sick in this crisis. They are behaving selfishly. God help us Christians if this kind of behavior becomes the public face of the faith amid crisis.

To be fair, churches all over the region — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — are doing the right thing for the sake of the common good. We are all still praying, but making this sacrifice so that the disease will not be as bad as it otherwise would. I wish those people in that congregation, jumping around with their holy cloths, would think for half a second about the price that everybody else in this impoverished state will pay so they can indulge their political and religious fantasies.

It is hard for me to write this, given that I feel strongly about religious liberty. But like any right, it cannot be open-ended. The pastor could host smaller services and still be within the law. Nobody is telling him that people cannot come to church; they’re just saying that the gatherings have to be smaller. It is a reasonable request in this unprecedented emergency. But the Rev. Spell cares more about his rights than his duties of charity to the community. For shame.

The day will come when Christians who meet for worship in defiance of the law will truly be saints. This is not that day. This is not heroic sanctity; this is just stupidity and arrogance. COVID19 is not Antichrist; it’s a deadly virus. When this thing passes, and the secular left resumes its attack on religious liberty, this is exactly the kind of thing it’s going to hold up as an example of what religious liberty means to conservatives. The damage Rev. Spell’s arrogance will do will go beyond questions of public health.

UPDATE: This is not just an Evangelical/charismatic thing. There are some of my fellow Orthodox who are angrily petitioning our bishops to re-open the churches. The thing is, if they get coronavirus at church, they are going to take up badly needed beds. If they bring coronavirus to church, they are going to spread it among others, who will take up badly needed beds. It’s one thing if you decide that it’s worth risking your own life to plague, for the sake of going to church. I would still ask where is your charity, given that the hospital system is going to be overwhelmed, but at least I would recognize that you are choosing to risk your own life. But that’s not how the virus works. You are not just taking a chance with your own life by gathering in a group (at church, at a bar, or anywhere). If you’re a carrier, you are risking the lives of everyone you come in contact with; if you’re not a carrier, but become one because you stood next to a carrier at church, then everybody you come in contact with after that is exposed.

How is this Christian charity? How? Seriously, I want to hear the argument.

UPDATE.2: A doctor friend has just told me that we are now facing a national shortage of albuterol, the drug that makes it possible for people with breathing problems to breathe. There is no substitute for it. People on ventilators use this drug. It’s a matter of life and death for a lot of people. We all need to be social-distancing ourselves, and doing everything possible to stay out of the hospital!

UPDATE.3:R.R. Reno at First Things would appear to side with the Rev. Spell. Excerpt:

In truth, I am demoralized by the Catholic Church’s response to what Ephraim Radner calls “the Time of the Virus.” Those of us who live in densely populated areas are aware of the intense anxiety and fear that has become pervasive. The massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs. St. Paul observed that Christ came to free us from our bondage to sin and death. This does not mean we will not sin or die. It means that we need not live in fear.

It is imperative that Christian leaders not succumb to the contagious panic, which is a weapon of the Enemy to enslave us to our fears. Many steps short of suspension and cancellation can be taken to ensure that prayer, worship, and the administration of the sacraments are done in responsible ways. In a time of pandemic—a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment, and death—churches must not join the stampede of fear.

I disagree. I would agree that Catholic parishes should be kept open so that people can pray in front of the Eucharist (and that the faithful should be strongly warned to keep social distance), but I believe Reno is wrong, in general. The virus is not a threat like terrorism. The things Christians do to go to church to strengthen themselves spiritually could end up making them very sick, and more seriously, making people who did not choose to go to church sick. As I write, the president has just dispatched a 1,000-bed naval hospital ship to New York harbor.Gov. Cuomo said:

“You are past the time of monetizing these decisions,” he said.

“You are at a point of deciding: how many people are going to live, how many people are going to die?”

This is like saying after the nuclear accident there that churches around Chernobyl should be kept open, because people need spiritual comfort in this time of crisis — this, even though they would be exposed to deadly doses of radiation, and take that radioactivity with them out of the zone.

UPDATE.4: This just in from a reader:

I’m a lawyer and I just read your “Rev. Spell Asserts Rights, Shirks Duties.” I’m a big religious liberty champion, but we need to understand the situation here. I can’t speak to the religious side of not meeting, but I can speak to the legal side of not meeting. All in all, there isn’t a “religious liberty” case against the orders.
Under current law, (Employment Division v. Smith), a neutral law of general applicability survives. The ban on church gatherings would be unconstitutional if it was ONLY a ban on church gatherings (that would not be general applicable). It would also be unconstitutional if the decision was actually motivated by an animus against religion, even though it appears to be general (that would not be neutral).
Therefore, under current law, the orders stand.
However, religious liberty guys like us have had problems with this reasoning, because it would allow a neutral law of general applicability like “never give alcohol to minors, period, no exceptions, and that’s a year in prison if you do.” This would prevent pastors or priests from giving the sacraments (wine) to children. Put in the wrong hands, that “neutral law of general applicability” would be a terrible detriment to Christianity (grape-juice Baptists excepted). We’ve seen other problems like this in the field of discrimination law.
Instead, we Religious Liberty Nuts want things to go back to the high-water mark of religious liberty: Sherbert v. Verner. This put a strict scrutiny test on any government action that burdens the free exercise of religion.
That test goes like this:
1. Is there a sincere belief? (Since we’ve been meeting together for church for 2,000 years, that will pass. Check)
2. Does the government action create a substantial burden? (If the government says you can’t meet in large groups, then yes. Check)
Then the government action only stands if the following test is met:
1. There is a compelling governmental interest? (Based on what we’ve seen in Italy and what we know about the virus spread: Check)
2. Is the governmental action “narrowly tailored” or pursued in the least restrictive means? (Let’s explore)
Here, despite how broad the quarantine orders are, this is actually as narrowly tailored as we can get. This is an invisible virus with a several week dormancy period. If this were something like Ebola, where you need ACTUAL contact with bodily fluids, this could be different. Here, it’s spread through the air quite quickly. This means that the ban on large gatherings should survive the Sherbert Test.
This is the same test that was adopted in Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation and RLUIPA  (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) cases by statute after the Employment Division v. Smith case.
This means we should keep in mind that EVEN WITH THE BEST RELIGIOUS LIBERTY PROTECTION THAT WE COULD EVER HOPE FOR IN THIS COUNTRY, the quarantine orders are valid and should stand.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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