BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Rev. Tony Spell wants a federal judge to block authorities in Louisiana from enforcing bans on gatherings against him.
He’s also asking to be paid for what his attorney said are “unconstitutional restrictions” and “unconstitutional punishments.”
These requests are made in a federal lawsuit filed by Spell’s attorney on Thursday, May 7.
Among the claims used to justify Spell’s requests are allegations that Spell, in addition to his church and neighboring home in Central, La., became the target of surveillance and interference attempts.
The lawsuit says that’s because Spell challenged an order from Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards that bans groups of more than 10 people from gathering in the same place anywhere in the state, at any one time, including in churches.
Gatherings are believed to contribute to the spread of COVID-19, the illness blamed for a global pandemic that has killed thousands.
People can be temporarily excluded from having to comply with the order to perform tasks deemed “essential.”
Church services are not included among those “essential” tasks.
The governor can legally issue such orders during the pandemic under state law.
Spell, however, has said that law is invalid since religious gatherings are constitutionally-protected.
Spell continued to minister in-person to crowds of hundreds after that order was given.
The lawsuit goes on to allege, as a result, the water was turned off at Spell’s church and only restored after “protests;” Spell has been “followed” by law enforcement; he has received personal visits from the heads of law enforcement agencies; his telephone was “tapped” and being “monitored;” and cameras were installed around his home and church.
Few of those allegations are actually linked or blamed on a specific person.
The lawsuit, however, names Gov. Edwards, Central Mayor David Barrow, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston-Broome, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran, and 19th Judicial District Judge Fred Crifasi as defendants.
Each has some enforcement authority over Central, La.
Judge Crifasi, specifically, oversaw a hearing that resulted in Spell being placed on house arrest.
A protestor was standing near Spell’s church in late April when Spell allegedly backed a bus toward him.
Video of the alleged incident shows the bus coming to a stop just short of where the protester was standing.
Spell said he wanted to get out and confront the protestor. Spell claims he wasn’t going to hit him.
Officers charged Spell with aggravated assault and improper backing as a result of the incident.
Spell was released from custody on the condition that he “refrain from any and all criminal conduct, including but not limited to strictly abiding by all emergency orders issued by the Governor of the State of Louisiana.”
He appeared before Judge Crifasi to agree to those terms.
However, when the judge asked Spell if he’d comply with the governor’s orders, Spell reportedly replied by quoting a bible verse.
Spell reportedly remained silent when asked a second time.
The judge interpreted Spell’s silence to mean he would not comply with those state orders, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said.
Spell was given an ankle monitor and ordered to house arrest.
He was seen wearing the ankle monitor as he ministered to crowds a while later.
The federal judge’s ruling could potentially allow Spell not to comply with the conditions of his release.
Included among the legality arguments and allegations in the lawsuit are explanations of Spell’s own personal convictions.
The lawsuit says Spell practices “strict adherence to the Holy Bible and Christian principles."
Those principals include in-person gatherings for religious services, the lawsuit says.
Several scriptures from the Bible are quoted in the lawsuit as evidence.
Spell also believes he “must lay hands on the sick and pray for them so that they may become well."
There is no scientific evidence that suggests Spell’s touch and prayer has healed anyone.
“The Plaintiffs believe that without assembly, the laying on of hands for prayer and healing, the holy communion, and the love offering have lost their meaning unless done in public gathering,” the lawsuit states.
Other religious leaders in the state have complied with the gathering ban and adapted services to be live-streamed online.
Spell maintains it is unfair that churches have to adapt when other “secular” businesses are allowed to operate with “least restrictive means.”
“If Pastor Spell told his congregation to meet at Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Walmart, then he apparently would not have been violating the Governor’s orders, but since he told them to meet at [the church], he is facing fines and possible imprisonment,” the lawsuit states.
Hearings on Spell’s lawsuit are expected to begin soon.