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A Louisiana pastor defies a state order and holds a church service with hundreds of people

Some Americans have ignored guidance to practice social distancing. Police reminded one church's leadership after they held a service for more than 300 people.

Posted: Mar 19, 2020 9:34 AM
Updated: Mar 19, 2020 12:19 PM


On Tuesday night, just before the police arrived, Pastor Tony Spell stood in the pulpit of his Louisiana church and delivered a message to hundreds of worshipers before him and fellow believers around the world.

"I just want to encourage the religious world tonight, Amen!," Spell said in a sing-song voice, building to the crest of his sermon.

"Keep going to church! Keep on worshiping God! ... The church is a hospital for the sick! It's a place of healing for the brokenhearted!"

In holding services for so many followers at his Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Spell defied an emergency order by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards banning public or private gatherings with more than 50 people to stop the spread of Covid-19.

"I feel the Covid-19 scare is politically motivated," Spell told CNN. He estimated his church hosted about 300 people for Tuesday's service.

As the deadly pandemic spreads, houses of worship around the world -- from the Vatican to storefront mosques -- have closed their doors. But a few like Spell defiantly refuse, arguing that they have a right to worship as they please, and that, with fears of contagion upending our daily lives, we need divine aid and prayer now more than ever.

In an essay in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things, editor R.R. Reno chastised the dozens of bishops in the US who have suspended Mass and closed their churches.

"Closing churches is utterly unnecessary," wrote Reno. "People can gather to pray before the reserved sacrament while maintaining the 'social distancing' advised by public health experts. Modest-sized Masses can be conducted in ways that do not irresponsibly risk spreading the virus."

But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that no gatherings with 50 people or more take place for the next eight weeks. The White House on Monday issued more stringent recommendations, saying that people should not gather in groups of more than 10 and should avoid restaurants.

In Baton Rouge, Spell said a police officer came to Life Tabernacle Church on Tuesday night and told him the next time the church held a service, the National Guard would be sent in to break it up.

The Central Police Department in Baton Rouge did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a statement, the department said that it would enforce the Governor's order.

As of Wednesday morning Louisiana had at least 257 confirmed coronavirus cases, with four deaths.

Seeking God's will

Like Spell, Pastor Brian Lowman is reluctant to close the doors of his South Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Lowman said he met with the church's safety committee and deacons on Tuesday to "seek God's will for the church." As always, the independent Baptist church sought guidance from the Bible, particularly these passages:

Hebrews 10:25 -- "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching."

2 Timothy 1:7 -- "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."

"The same God that told us not to stop coming together to worship Him during these times of increased illness and persecution," Lowman said in his letter to the congregation, "is the same One who does not want us to be afraid."

While remaining open for worship, the church is taking some precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the pastor said. The church doors will be propped open and Lowman said he hopes congregants can make it to their pews without touching anything. The offering plate will not be passed, and fellowship time and Sunday school have been cancelled.

Otherwise, the church plans to hold its Wednesday service as scheduled. Its Facebook page says the service also will be streamed online.

Pastor: 'The Bible tells us to lay hands on the sick'

In East Baton Rouge, Spell is making fewer concessions to the coronavirus.

The pastor accused the government of "over-reach" in mandating no large gatherings. He cast his defiance in the mold of Rosa Parks and the early American Revolutionaries.

"People are still going to work, still going to the mall. I encountered more people in Target today then I did during my service last night," he said. "It's persecution of the faith for me not to have my worship service and yet I am allowed to go out in public and shop. Why is there one standard for commerce and another for religion?"

Spell said his church held a typical service Tuesday evening. There was singing and dancing and slaying of the spirit, even the laying on of hands to heal the sick. Spell said he is not opposed to doctors, but says members of his congregation have been healed of AIDS-HIV and even cancer.

"The Bible tells us to lay hands on the sick and they shall recover and will continue to do that without the fear of the spread of any virus," Spell said.

He told CNN affiliate WAFB that his church hosted more than 1,100 people for services Sunday.

The pastor and his church are part of the Apostolic movement, which takes its doctrines from Jesus' earliest followers. Spell said he believes, as Jesus' apostles did, that we are living near the End Times, and that miracles, signs and wonders abound.

That's why it's so important that his church continues to meet, Spell said. The services, held three times weekly, aren't about the sermon, or even about the fellowship. It's about emotion, according to the pastor, the Holy Spirit that sweeps through a congregation and lifts it off its feet with a joyful noise. You can't get that from a television screen, he said.

"There are miracles and signs and wonders in every one of our services," Spell said, "and that's why we continue."

Fallout from Tuesday's service

A video of Tuesday's church service posted on Snell's Facebook page shows a diverse congregation joining hands to sing and dance. Some of the congregants appear elderly, others hold sleeping children in their arms.

But continuing their services may come at a cost for Life Tabernacle Church.

On Wednesday morning, after the church's service was broadcast on local news, several church members were suspended from work, Spell said, because their employers feared spreading the virus.

And come Sunday, as the church plans to bus in more than 600 children from a 60-mile radius for its free meals and Sunday school, they may also have another visitor: the National Guard.

But there may be sympathy for Spell and his cause among conservative Christians, even as many have closed their own churches. The pastor said Wednesday he's received dozens of messages from supporters.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1118335

Reported Deaths: 17712
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1455892240
Lake724831254
Allen67063882
Hamilton51060487
St. Joseph49820649
Elkhart40268546
Vanderburgh34714497
Tippecanoe30808276
Johnson27696467
Hendricks26313385
Porter25657386
Madison21131455
Clark20238279
Vigo19059309
LaPorte17192261
Howard16770314
Delaware16761303
Monroe16628220
Kosciusko14293167
Hancock13113186
Bartholomew12983190
Warrick12210190
Wayne12090269
Floyd12011226
Grant11998245
Morgan10409192
Boone9869124
Noble9316122
Henry9177169
Marshall9152147
Dearborn8970100
Dubois8835140
Shelby8281130
Cass8167128
Lawrence8057185
DeKalb7817109
Jackson770793
Huntington7661115
Gibson7102118
Montgomery7101123
Harrison6954100
Knox6915116
Steuben669089
Whitley659660
Miami6595113
Putnam645085
Clinton627179
Wabash6221111
Jasper613192
Jefferson5856105
Ripley557294
Adams542281
Daviess5076117
Scott491580
Wells4836105
White478469
Greene4701101
Clay464662
Decatur4611110
Fayette452496
Jennings452067
LaGrange427491
Posey410044
Randolph3944107
Washington390956
Fountain375964
Fulton364874
Spencer362247
Starke355574
Owen353577
Sullivan348555
Orange331372
Jay331050
Rush309533
Carroll296239
Franklin292744
Perry290553
Vermillion283658
Tipton251167
Parke250130
Pike248644
Blackford222144
Pulaski210359
Newton182452
Brown177550
Crawford169129
Benton168417
Martin152120
Switzerland147612
Warren135816
Union122616
Ohio92413
Unassigned0595

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1717876

Reported Deaths: 26851
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1793291843
Cuyahoga1681592655
Hamilton1137721544
Montgomery805721405
Summit719531210
Lucas630291027
Butler56852814
Stark538501183
Lorain42330645
Warren35959417
Mahoning35798788
Lake32314501
Clermont31289369
Trumbull27344620
Delaware27206185
Licking26658344
Medina26042353
Fairfield24638287
Greene24378373
Clark22122390
Portage21257283
Richland21102342
Wood20128248
Allen18969326
Miami17338352
Columbiana16905335
Muskingum16726207
Wayne15740307
Tuscarawas14454362
Marion13332196
Ashtabula12732237
Erie12685199
Scioto12475188
Pickaway12260155
Ross11719226
Hancock11529175
Geauga10934179
Lawrence10653172
Belmont10459234
Huron9805159
Jefferson9632228
Union957375
Sandusky9348166
Seneca8917161
Knox8792176
Washington8688159
Darke8399181
Athens838197
Ashland8029152
Auglaize7943120
Shelby7511135
Defiance7358117
Crawford7281150
Fulton7215113
Brown7173116
Logan7003111
Guernsey696186
Mercer6933100
Highland6745120
Clinton6526106
Williams650099
Madison649790
Preble6274140
Putnam6244122
Jackson581597
Champaign580887
Perry566779
Coshocton5645108
Ottawa5641102
Morrow517765
Fayette494072
Hardin4895100
Gallia471478
Van Wert467895
Pike465578
Adams4592110
Henry434280
Hocking410193
Holmes3999141
Wyandot377675
Carroll366178
Paulding325451
Meigs305961
Monroe235961
Noble220349
Morgan216939
Harrison213153
Vinton187638
Unassigned06
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Saturday is looking great, with warmer temperatures, wet and windy conditions returning Sunday.
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