Pastor defies house arrest, again holds service during virus

CENTRAL — A Louisiana pastor held services in his church Sunday, defying house arrest orders that followed an assault charge related to his decision to hold mass gatherings in defiance of public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

A livestream from Life Tabernacle Church showed Tony Spell walking among more than 100 congregants. Most participants were not wearing face masks, and social distancing was not being practiced.

“The virus doesn’t have a brain,” Spell said. “It don’t stop at the door of the White House and come into the door of the church house. The virus don’t have a brain, but we can bind fear right now. God gave you an immune system to kill that virus.”

Spell also said Americans are “like prisoners in their homes.”

“People are losing their collective minds,” Spell said. “People are bewitched. People are bewildered. People are confused. … Come out of your hiding, America.”

The police department in Central, a suburb of the capital of Baton Rouge, said on a posting on its Facebook page that Spell turned himself in to the department last week on charges of aggravated assault and improper backing. Authorities say that on April 19, Spell drove a church bus in reverse in the direction of Trey Bennett, who has been protesting Spell’s mass gatherings since Easter Sunday. Louisiana has a ban in place on gatherings of more than 10 people due to the coronavirus outbreak.

After Spell’s arrest, dozens of Spell’s parishioners met him at the East Baton Rouge Parish prison, dressed in their Sunday best, to show support. He was released a short time later.

Spell also faces misdemeanor charges for holding in-person church services despite the ban on gatherings.

In a livestream from the church on Sunday, images including photos from Spell’s arrest, as well as information for a GoFundMe account to help with his legal costs, played over music being performed at the church.

The Louisiana Health Department on Sunday reported that at least 26,773 coronavirus cases and at least 1,670 deaths from it had been confirmed in the state.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

Tony Spell, pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church, leaves East Baton Rouge Parish jail on Tuesday after posting bond. Louisiana authorities arrested the pastor on an assault charge after he admitted he drove his church bus toward a man who has been protesting his decision to hold mass gatherings in defiance of public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Associated Press

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