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Louisiana Church Continues Large Services Despite COVID-19 Safety Orders From Governor

By  Frank Camp
Parishioners of the Lakewood Church led by Pastor Joel Osteen pray together during a service at the church as the city starts the process of rebuilding after severe flooding during Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey on September 3, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Sunday, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a “Stay at Home” order prohibiting gatherings of more than ten people in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

This order comes on the heels of two previous orders – one from March 13 that limited gatherings to 250 people or fewer, and one from March 16 that limited gatherings to 50 people or fewer.

Despite the orders from the governor, a church in Louisiana has continued to hold large services. On March 17, Life Tabernacle Church in Central, Louisiana, gathered for worship with more than 300 in attendance, according to Pastor Tony Spell.

Video footage of the Tuesday service posted on Facebook shows dozens of parishioners gathering near the stage, hugging and laying hands on each other. None appear to be wearing face masks or gloves.

During the service, Spell had ushers pass out “anointed clothes” to those in attendance, which he said would bring “healing virtue” and “the miraculous power of the Holy Ghost” with them.

A video posted to Facebook on March 17 shows Spell exiting the church and speaking briefly with a police officer outside. Although the audio of the exchange is too poor to understand, Spell spoke directly to the camera immediately after.

Spell told the cameraman:

He basically said the National Guard is gonna come and break our group up of more than 50 people. He’s not gonna do anything. He respects what we’re doing. He stands behind what we’re doing … I said if the National Guard comes, they’re gonna find us doing more of what we’re doing tonight. We’re gonna continue to assemble under our rights of the Constitution, as a church, and as a local body of Christ.

Spell was asked by the man running the camera if he could be arrested. The pastor replied that he didn’t know, but added, “We’re taking persecution from friends, family, threat of lawsuits, threat of jail – nothing is gonna deter us from our religious conviction of worshipping and assembling and gathering.”

Despite what Spell claims the police officer told him, according to NBC affiliate WAFB, Louisiana National Guard Colonel Ed Bush said that the organization wouldn’t be enforcing gathering prohibitions. “The National Guard has not been tasked with enforcing any of the curfew, social distancing or meeting requirements as set by the governor,” Bush stated.

Additionally, Central Police Department Chief Roger Corcoran told CNN: “That was never told to the pastor by my officer.”

In a YouTube message on Thursday, Spell spoke about the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the book of Daniel, then stated that the church wouldn’t be “in defiance of any codes, of any government mandates.”

We have the support of our federal, local, and statewide governments. We will have the support of our law enforcement. I’ve met with these individuals who are the leaders of our state, of our city parish, of our nation … we’re in compliance with what they’re asking of us to do, which is to control the spread of this virus, to flatten the curve of the spread of the virus.

Spell added that the buses bringing people to services would have no more than 50 people, and that the busses would be disinfected.

On Sunday, Life Tabernacle Church held services outside under tents. In a video posted to Facebook, a large number of parishioners can be seen worshiping, with only a few wearing basic surgical masks. Proper social distancing was not occurring.

Spell said COVID-19 doesn’t “concern” him, according to WAFB. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says,” Spell reportedly stated.

WAFB notes that “East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore says those violating the governor’s proclamation could face prosecution as a last resort.”

In response to the continuation of the church’s large services, a petition has been launched to have Spell prosecuted for “reckless endangerment.” More than 6,000 people have signed.

As of Saturday, East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has seen 75 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and three deaths, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) Global Cases map. The virus has infected more than 66,000 Americans, leading to 947 deaths.

The Daily Wire reached out to Central Police and Pastor Tony Spell for comment, but as of publication, we have not received a reply from either.

Governor Edwards’ March 22 order reads in part:

In an effort to reduce and limit the spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana, and to preserve the health and safety of all members of the public, all gatherings of 10 people or more shall be postponed or canceled. This applies only to gatherings in a single space at the same time where individuals will be in close proximity to one another…

All individuals within the state of Louisiana are under a general stay-at-home order and are directed to stay home unless performing an essential activity. An activity is essential if the purpose of the activity is one of the following:

A. Obtaining food, medicine, and other similar goods necessary for the individual or a family member of the individual.

B. Obtaining non-elective medical care and treatment and other similar vital services for an individual or a family member of the individual.

C. Going to and from an individual’s workplace to perform a job function necessary to provide goods or services being sought in Subsections (A) and (B) of this section, or as otherwise deemed essential worker functions…

E. Going to and from an individual’s place of worship.

F. Engaging in outdoor activity, provided individuals maintain a distance of six feet from one another and abide by the 10-person limitation on gathering size established in this proclamation.

Governor Edwards’ previously issued order prohibiting public gatherings of more than 250 people included worship services.

When asked about the limit during a press conference, Edwards said: “This prohibition does apply to churches and houses of worship with congregations that exceed 250 in a single service. However, churches and places of worship can engage in multiple services and bring the number of people in them below 250.”

The governor explained his decision to include churches in the prohibition:

It is important, and this is probably the one time a week where we know that the most number of elderly people and people with chronic health conditions are sitting in pews next to others for at least an hour. And so while it’s a very heavy decision, it was one that was deliberate to include churches…

On March 16, when Governor Edwards announced further limitations on public gatherings to fewer than 50 people, he stated in part: “These limitations were difficult to make, but they are necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19, protect the health of Louisianans, and flatten the curve.”

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