Defiant Louisiana pastor arrested over coronavirus protest

Full Screen
1 / 14

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Pastor Tony Spell speaks to media after holding an evening service at Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Spell is facing misdemeanor charges for holding services previously despite a ban on gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana authorities arrested a pastor on an assault charge on Tuesday after he admitted that 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.

The police department in Central, a suburb of the capital of Baton Rouge, said on a posting on their Facebook page that Tony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, turned himself into the department and was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and improper backing. Officials said Spell also had outstanding traffic tickets.

Spell was taken to the East Baton Rouge Parish prison, where about 70 of his parishioners, dressed in their Sunday best, arrived in church buses to show support. Men in jackets and ties, women in dresses and children, some in matching outfits, gathered in a parking lot across the street. They stood close to each other, praying and singing hymns while guards, some wearing protective masks watched.

Spell eventually walked out of the jail to applause from his supporters, after his wife entered the jail with a handful of cash that had been delivered by someone in a car. Online booking records indicate bail was set at $175.

“My rights to have church and to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ are endowed to me by my creator, not my district attorney, not my chief of police and not my governor, John Bel Edwards," Spell said. "Not my president and not my Department of Justice.”

The arrest happened on the same day the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner reported that deaths in the parish, which encompasses the state capital of Baton Rouge and Central, had surpassed 100.

Before Spell was released, one Spell supporter shouted defiantly at Trey Bennett, the protester Spell is accused of assaulting. Bennett also showed up at the jail, carrying his protest sign. It says “Close this church” on one side and “Danger: coronavirus incubator” on the other.

“Our church will never close, you get that?” the man yelled.