BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Rev. Tony Spell’s attempt to get a federal judge to block authorities in Louisiana from enforcing bans on gatherings against him was shot down in court.
He sought a temporary order which would allow him to skirt the bans as a lawsuit he filed makes its way through court.
He is still seeking to be paid for what he called violations of his constitutional rights. That request will be addressed at a later time, however, a judge signaled it could also be shot down.
U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson oversaw the hearing.
In a ruling issued Friday, May 15, Jackson said Spell’s lawsuit, “fails to demonstrate that [Spell’s] rights, which are not absolute, outweigh the lives and health of Louisiana’s population.”
Jackson most notably ruled that since Louisiana’s gathering bans expired Friday, May 15, continuing that request as part of the lawsuit made no sense.
Jackson, however, did take a moment to address Spell’s claims.
He noted in his ruling that Spell’s request is rooted in claims that state government cannot overrule constitutionally-protected freedoms that allow Americans to practice religion.
Spell has argued he practices “strict adherence to the Holy Bible and Christian principles."
Those principals require 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."
“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.
At the same time, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards banned 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 could be temporarily excluded from having to comply with the order to perform tasks deemed “essential.”
Church services were not included among those “essential” tasks.
Jackson argued the limitations were placed on religious gatherings and places of worship as they were on all other businesses, equally.
“[Spell and his attorneys] seek recognition of their constitutional rights in a vacuum, curiously paying no heed to the pandemic that has spread across the entire nation in a matter of mere weeks,” Jackson wrote.
Jackson also noted the Supreme Court already ruled in such a way that contradicts Spell’s desire to hold in-person gatherings on the basis of the First Amendment.
"The Supreme Court has also recognized that ‘[T]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community…to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death,'” Jackson wrote.
The office of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a defendant in the lawsuit, published a statement on behalf of the governor’s executive counsel Matthew Block.
“Judge Jackson’s ruling supports what we have long said – that the Governor’s Stay at Home order was lawful, necessary and issued under the most dire of circumstances, with Louisiana facing widespread illness and loss of life from the dangerous spread of COVID-19. As both a lawyer and a man of strong faith, Governor Edwards carefully issued his Stay at Home order to put in reasonable mitigation measures that allowed for worship while still protecting the public’s health," the statement says. "He undertook this order as a last resort to protect the lives of the people of Louisiana. Further, Judge Jackson recognized that the Governor’s order to move the state to Phase 1 of the recovery from this pandemic allows for even greater opportunities for churches all across this state to connect with their communities.”
Hearings on Spell’s lawsuit will continue.
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