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Louisiana church packed for services again despite charges against pastor amid pandemic

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Central, Louisiana — Buses and cars filled a Louisiana church parking lot for another service Tuesday evening as worshippers flocked to hear a Louisiana pastor who is facing misdemeanor charges for holding services despite a ban on gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A few protesters turned out, too, including a man shouting through a bullhorn against those gathering at the Life Tabernacle Church in the city of Central, where pastor Tony Spell has been holding services. Another demonstrator held up a sign reading: "God don't like stupid."

CBS Baton Rouge affiliate WAFB-TV reported the service was jammed with hundreds of parishioners. The station said there were also dozens of cars on hand to see if anyone stopped Spell from holding the service.

Afterward, people began leaving the church, some chatting outside the front doors, and many appearing to not be adhering to social distancing recommendations to remain at least six feet apart. Hugs and handshakes were shared freely as people said their goodbyes and departed.

Hours earlier on Tuesday, Spell was issued a summons for holding services previously at the church in violation of the governor's order banning gatherings.

APTOPIX Virus Outbreak Louisiana
Congregants arrive for an evening service at the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, Louisiana on March 31, 2020. Gerald Herbert / AP

"Come out, Tony. Come tell us why you're endangering people's lives," the man with the bullhorn shouted Tuesday evening, directing his words at the pastor.

Flanked by some of his congregation, including children and older people, Spell emerged from the church later Tuesday night and said he is going to keep his church doors open. He said he doesn't consider doing that any different than keeping the doors of Walmart open. Spell also compared going to church to going to the hospital, but for spiritual healing.

"We are needy people. Our souls are lost," he said. "We need help, and the church is the salvation center of the soul, the sanctuary where we come together and meet."

Spell told CBS News that 1,265 people went to his church on Sunday, and he defended their assembly. "We have a constitutional right to congregate," Spell said in an email on Monday. "We will continue."

He said they disinfect the venue daily and even boasted that it's "cleaner" than open gas stations, Walmart and Sam's Club. Spell offered a "no comment" when asked whether his church was still collecting donations.

Earlier this month, after a weekday service, he caught criticism for his controversial remarks when he told CBS affiliate WAFB-TV that the coronavirus was "not a concern."

"The virus, we believe, is politically motivated," Spell told WAFB. "We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says."

Around Louisiana, more than 5,200 people have confirmed virus infections, and 239 state residents have died, according to the Louisiana health department.

The order from Governor John Bel Edwards prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people, said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore. Each violation carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine, Moore said.

"The whole situation just puts everyone at risk," Moore said. "We ask everyone to abide by the governor's order."

The governor has urged church leaders instead to continue their services online or in smaller groups to lessen the risks.

Spell had previously confirmed he was facing misdemeanor charges. He said when reached by phone earlier that he was read his rights and fingerprinted - but the summons wasn't deterring him. He said he would continue to defy the ban.

"We're still here and still assembling and having church," Spell said. Asked why he was defying the governor's orders, he said, "Because the Lord told us to."

Asked whether he was concerned about the pandemic, Spell said: "I'm no more concerned than I would be going to Walmart or Home Depot."

Moore said earlier that additional charges could be issued if Spell continued to disobey Edwards' ban on gatherings. He said the pastor wasn't booked into jail earlier because parish officials are trying to lessen the jail population amid the risks of the highly contagious virus.

Earlier, Central Assistant Police Chief Darren Sibley had said officers had no plans to try to stop Tuesday night's prayer service. But he said they would "document everything and forward everything to the district attorney."

"He is doing this for publicity," Sibley said of Spell. "He is putting the citizens of the community at risk. And he is putting the people in his congregation at risk."

Edwards issued a "stay at home" order that he said he will extend through the end of April to combat the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, which is threatening to overwhelm hospitals with patients.

Edwards said Tuesday that law enforcement authorities had been "extremely patient" with Spell and had "done everything that they could" to get him to comply with the governor's order before issuing the summons.

"I'm going to appeal to them one more time: Please stop what you're doing," Edwards said. "The overwhelming majority of our faith leaders have found other ways to engage with their parishioners."

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