Louisiana Pastor Tony Spell has been in national headlines for the past few weeks because of his refusal to follow his state’s ban on large gatherings. He was arrested in late March, and, still defiant, he bused parishioners in for a church service.
Now a member of his church has died of COVID-19 and his lawyer has been hospitalized due to complications from the disease.
Spell runs the Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge, and he has been touring the media to denounce his state’s Stay-at-Home order, which does not contain a religious exemption.
“We bring people in to the house of God, feed them both natural food and spiritual food and then we go back into our respective places,” he said, adding that his church has a “command from God.”
On Easter, his church held a massive service with 1100 attendees in seven different buildings.
Harold Orillion, 78, was one of six people in the Baton Rouge area to pass away Wednesday from COVID-19. Spell has confirmed that Orillion was a member of the church.
The coroner listed acute respiratory distress syndrome, pneumonia, and COVID-19 as causes of death, but Spell disagrees.
“That is a lie,” he told WAFB yesterday. It is not clear what Spell believes killed Orillion or how he would know.
Church lawyer Jeff Wittenbrink, 56, has also fallen ill and has been hospitalized. Louisiana’s The Advocate reports that he has a high fever and a severe cough. He is on oxygen but is expected to recover.
Wittenbrink attended a press event at at Life Tabernacle Church on April 2 and a service at the church on April 5, but he insists that he could have caught it anywhere.
“I went to Albertson’s twice a day,” he said. “I went to Sam’s. I went to Walmart. I went to Lowe’s. I used the gas pumps. I mean I just wasn’t careful. God knows where I got it. The bad thing is I might have spread to somebody. I feel bad about that.”
Wittenbrink has been helping Spell fight misdemeanor charges against him connected to keeping his church open, and he said that his hospitalization hasn’t changed his belief that Spell is right.
“I’m very proud of Pastor Spell,” he said. “I think he’s one of the few people who understands we shouldn’t just throw away our civil liberties without a fight just because there’s some kind of crisis going on.”
Members of Spell’s church have taken the pandemic in stride. One congregant explained that he’s “not scared of this virus.”
“When it’s my time, it’s my time,” he told Reuters.
But Bobbye McInnis, a neighbor of the church, called the services “utterly ridiculous.”
“They’re just afraid there’s not going to be enough money in the collection plate,” McInnis said. “You take all these buses and go to another parish and bringing in people, well they could be bringing in people who have the virus.”
After his arrest on March 31, Spell argued that religious freedom meant that his church could not be stopped from holding services. Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran accused Spell of putting people’s lives at risk for “his own self-promotion.”
“Mr. Spell will have his day in court where he will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community,” Corcoran said.
“This is not an issue over religious liberty, and it’s not about politics. We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”