GOP state lawmakers seek to keep Baton Rouge-area pastor from prosecution 

Republican Louisiana lawmakers trying to chisel away at Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions Wednesday sought to protect Baton Rouge-area pastor Tony Spell, who was charged with violating those rules, and advanced legislation that would keep emergency orders from governing churches.

The House criminal justice committee voted 6-3 for a bill by Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, that would grant immunity from fines, penalties and prosecution to anyone “assembling to exercise religious freedom” during a publicly declared emergency.

“Some of the people didn’t attend church just out of the fear of being arrested and humiliated. And I think we need to send a clear message to Louisiana that our religious freedoms are alive and well,” McCormick says.

The bill is one of dozens filed in the special session that seek to undermine the Democratic governor’s coronavirus emergency rules, which currently include restrictions on businesses, limits on crowd sizes at sporting events and a statewide mask mandate.

Republican lawmakers are proposing everything from eliminating specific rules and banning enforcement of the orders to prohibiting future enactment of restrictions and revoking the existing public health emergency declaration. They’re also looking for ways to give themselves more authority to jettison future orders in any emergency, whether a pandemic, a hurricane or other disaster.

After Wednesday’s debates, lawmakers planned to take a break from the monthlong special session and head home ahead of Hurricane Delta, which threatens to hit Louisiana with ferocious winds and storm surge on Friday.

McCormick’s church protection bill would be retroactive to March 11, a move aimed at ending the prosecution of Spell, minister at Life Tabernacle Church in Central, for violating Edwards’ ban on large gatherings. Spell and several of his supporters attended Wednesday’s hearing.

Baton Rouge Rep. Ted James, the committee chairman, was among three Democrats who voted against the bill. He said the Supreme Court has cautioned against passing retroactive laws.

Spell was charged in April with several misdemeanor offenses for repeatedly holding in-person church services with hundreds of people not distanced from one another, in defiance of the governor’s restrictions on crowd sizes at the time. Spell also was arrested later on an assault charge for driving a church bus toward a man protesting his decision. The cases are pending.

Edwards has since loosened crowd size limits on churches and many other places.

But Spell’s supporters—and Republican lawmakers on the House committee—said Edwards never had the authority to enact such regulations on religious activity. A federal judge rejected those arguments in a lawsuit filed by Spell, refusing to issue an injunction against the governor. Read the full story