NEW ORLEANS -- The Louisiana Supreme Court threw out charges Friday against a pastor who flouted restrictions on gatherings early in the coronavirus pandemic, ruling 5-2 that the governor's executive orders violated freedom of religion.
“This is a tremendous win for religious civil liberties and it has vindicated us in our ... battle with the governor trying to close the churches down,” said the Rev. Tony Spell, who drew national attention when his congregation continued to meet in the spring of 2020, while much of the nation was in lockdown.
Gov. John Bel Edwards disagrees with but accepts the ruling, said spokesman Richard Carbo. “Each and every action Gov. Edwards took throughout the COVID pandemic was done with the goal of protecting the public’s health and saving lives,” Carbo said in a text message.
The Supreme Court majority found that numerous secular exemptions showed that religious groups weren't getting adequate consideration in mid- March 2020, when Edwards first limited gatherings to fewer than 50 people and, about a week later, tightened the limit to 10.
Churches around the country challenged state limits. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in November 2020 for churches in New York, reversing the trend of votes before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In February 2021, the nation's highest court ruled that California could not bar indoor services but could cap attendance at 25% of a church's capacity.
The record in Spell's case doesn't include any proof that “gatherings in secular venues like office buildings and airports created less risk of virus transmission than such interactions at gatherings in a church building,” Louisiana Supreme Court Justice William J. Crain wrote.
He cited the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that “strict scrutiny” of First Amendment rights was needed in the case against California because the governor's order contained “myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities.”
There was too little evidence about anything in Spell's case to make a decision, Chief Justice John L. Weimer wrote in his dissent. For instance, he wrote, there was no evidence either way about whether any churches’ religious worship or practices were adversely affected when they held services outdoors or online.
Nor, he wrote, was there any evidence about the capacity of Spell's church or those businesses exempt from the orders, and the activities held in either.
“Arguments that secular activities were treated more favorably was just that — arguments void of any factual support,” he wrote.
State Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who often clashes with the Democratic governor, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Spell's behalf.
“Once again, this Governor’s overreach has been defeated in court," Landry wrote in a news release. “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.”
Carbo said Edwards never closed houses of worship because he recognized their importance during the pandemic. “The Governor worked closely with faith leaders throughout the pandemic, and all were encouraged to hold services as safely as possible to protect their congregations,” he wrote.
Spell also sued Louisiana in federal court, asking for damage payments. A district judge twice ruled against him. The U.S. Supreme Court turned down his case, listing it on Dec. 6, 2021, among nearly 200 which it would not hear.