The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Pastor Tony Spell, finding that the orders limiting church attendance that led to his arrest on criminal charges were unconstitutional.
Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first executive order in question in March 2020 limited attendance at gatherings to 50 people but carved out well over 100 exemptions for secular activities, including shopping malls. After that, he issued an order limiting gatherings to 10 people and placing more restrictions on interactions, but still allowed a long list of exemptions.
Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, refused to limit the size of his worship services and was arrested in April 2020 because he “flagrantly defied the state’s stay at home order.” As the pandemic wore on, Spell continued to preach while wearing an ankle monitor and held fast to his principles, insisting, “We will never comply. Everything that Governor Edwards is doing is unlawful and unconstitutional.”
He filed suit, and his case eventually made it to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which on May 13 overruled two other court findings and ordered the criminal charges against Spell be dropped.
The state’s Supreme Court found in a 5-2 decision that the COVID order were not neutrally applied and was subject to strict scrutiny. After citing the importance of religious freedom to those who came to our country and the opinions of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that it is the most important freedom, the majority discussed Supreme Court precedent, which requires that laws that restrict religious practice must be generally applicable. Any exception to the rule makes it less likely the law passes that standard. If the state treats any secular activity more favorably than religious exercise, it is likely to be unconstitutional.
Noting the multitudinous exemptions to the order, the court wrote that it saw no discernable difference in risk between working at an office building or attending a worship service. In fact, it pointed out the order did not even prohibit people from gathering in an office building and performing a worship service, and it also provided exemptions for people driving to and from a religious service. It was only entering a church building that was limited to 10 people.
The court wrote, “The executive orders grant preferential treatment only to secular conduct.” It added, “This disparate treatment ‘strike[s] at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. It is also difficult to characterize these orders, one that allows for over 100 exemptions, as ‘blunt’ or lacking ‘fine distinctions,’” the majority wrote.
“Both orders crafted exemptions for a multitude of secular activities. While every exempt job is important, the state offers no explanation for attributing less importance to the fundamental right to exercise one’s religion. Our fundamental constitutional rights are not so numerous to prevent their consideration when constructing restrictions. The state must be sensitive to their possible infringement.”
They later added, “We reject any contention that early in a crisis, the Constitution’s protection of fundamental rights must always yield to the needs of the state to respond to the crisis. A public health emergency does not relegate the First Amendment to a proposition or allow violations thereof to be judged on a sliding scale of constitutionality.”
Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who filed a friend of the court brief in support of Spell, praised the court’s decision. He stated,
“Once again, this governor’s overreach has been defeated in court. While it is unfortunate that it took almost two years, I am appreciative that John Bel’s unconstitutional actions have been halted by the court. This is a victory for the separation of powers and our free exercise clause. What’s more: it is a great highlight of John Bel’s hypocrisy — punishing prayer service but not food service at a mall.”
During worship services this past Sunday, Spell celebrated the ruling with his congregation, which packed the pews. “We’ve come together this morning to celebrate a tremendous victory that the Lord had brought for us,” he said. “We’re very thankful for this day. We’re thankful for the Supreme Court, the attorneys, and everyone that stood with us for two years now.”
To those responsible for his arrest, he said that the courts found their actions to be completely illegal. “Everything you did was wrong, and now because of what you did, there’s now a religious liberty precedent that’s been set. That’s going to go for generations,” he said.
He said he will also be bringing suit against the state. “We’re filing this week for wrongful arrests, forbidden to leave the front door of our house, ankle bracelet, the shame, the humility, the damage, irreparable damage done to us, so we’re going after them now.”
The court’s ruling is a victory for the church and for the First Amendment. The problem, however, is it took two years to win that victory and Spell’s good name will likely never be fully restored. Because of the governor’s rash rush to use biased, heavy-handed mandates, Spell was arrested under false premises and has now spent years and likely tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to regain his rights and his reputation in court.
Too many government authorities jumped to implement mandates that restricted church services, even as they exempted other secular activities. This is a terrible abuse of power and because they were enacted immediately, people’s liberties were egregiously violated with too little recourse for far too long.
Our leaders showed their view of religion by what was deemed essential and what was not during the COVID pandemic. Some showed outright hostility toward religion, but others who simply failed to see its overall importance still violated the religious liberty of Americans.
In the future, we need leaders whose first reaction to crisis is to honor the Constitution and to pray. We need leaders who would make churches the last places they try to close. It’s up to Americans to vote for those leaders and to prevent such unconstitutional activity from ever again infringing on our God-given liberties.