From the outside, Life Tabernacle Church vaguely resembles a Bed Bath & Beyond outlet, an off-white big-box emporium of salvation on a suburban arterial road.
But its pastor, Tony Spell, sees his mission as far greater than simply selling the gospel to the good people of Baton Rouge. He is currently fighting a legal war with the Louisiana government over its right to impose COVID-19 safety precautions on churches such as his.
“It’s just the most important case for religious freedom in the history of the United States,” he says in his wood-panelled office before an evening service one winter Tuesday, a gold-leaf map of the world on the wall behind his desk.
The pastor was charged with violating Gov. John Bel Edwards’s stay-at-home order in the spring of 2020 by repeatedly holding in-person church services. Then, he was arrested for backing up a bus in the direction of a man protesting Life Tabernacle’s disregard for pandemic safety. Shooting an alligator in a lake behind the church last June netted him further citations for illegal hunting.
Not only is Mr. Spell, 43, fighting these prosecutions, he’s also suing the state. It’s one of several such cases from U.S. churches that aim to restrict government’s ability to bring in measures meant to control the pandemic.
If churches aren’t given special protections from COVID-19 protocols, he contends, Mr. Edwards will unleash a clampdown of biblical proportions.
“He is a tyrant, he’s a bully and he’s had his way for 23 months now,” the pastor says. “Next time, he’ll close everybody to get us. You see, Herod killed every baby boy of two years and younger to try to kill Jesus.”
Mr. Spell rejects most pandemic-related science. He argues that COVID-19 vaccines are the result of a “conspiratory” plan between government and drug companies. Life Tabernacle’s entire congregation is unvaccinated, he says, and none wear masks.
Instead, he champions the use of scientifically unproven and potentially dangerous COVID-19 remedies such as deworming medication ivermectin and anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.
“Trump two years ago was talking about drinking bleach, that’s hydroxychloroquine. Why did that never take? Because they’re seven cents a pill, while the bureaucrats who are in government own the Pfizers and the Johnson & Johnsons,” he says.
The overwhelming medical consensus, of course, is that the vaccines are safe and effective. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show unvaccinated Americans are 97 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who have been vaccinated and received a booster. Also, most commonly used bleach is actually a dilute of sodium hypochlorite.
One of Mr. Spell’s own lawyers knows first-hand how dangerous the virus can be.
Jeff Wittenbrink, a barrister representing Life Tabernacle, was hospitalized with COVID-19 in April of 2020. His illness was so severe that he became too weak to speak or eat, was put on oxygen and developed pneumonia. But it didn’t change his views.
“People have fought and died to protect those rights,” Mr. Wittenbrink says. “If you died of COVID because you were fighting for freedom, well then, so be it.”
COVID-19 restrictions on churches, he contends, are the actions of a “totalitarian” government comparable to that of China. He also expounds on a conspiracy theory, promoted by former president Donald Trump, that hospitals are artificially inflating COVID-19 death tolls for financial reasons.
Another of Mr. Spell’s lawyers is Roy Moore. A former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he was removed from office twice, the first time for installing a granite monument to the Ten Commandments in the courthouse and the second for ordering the state’s courts to not recognize the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Mr. Moore argues that the religious freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution make churches a more essential service than food and clothing stores. “Our constitution says the church as an institution is separate from the state,” he says. “They don’t say grocery stores are an institution that’s separate from the state.”
The former judge contends that COVID-19, which has killed more than 900,000 Americans, is a lesser problem than public-health restrictions. “The greatest danger that we faced in our society here in America was not from the pandemic, it was from the tyranny exercised by the government, excusing their actions because of the pandemic,” he says.
These cases, and the thinking behind them, help explain why the fight against COVID-19 has largely stalled out in this country.
The Supreme Court in January struck down President Joe Biden’s effort to compel employees of large companies to be vaccinated. In a YouGov poll last summer, 60 per cent of Republican voters said the threat of COVID-19 had been exaggerated for political reasons.
As for Mr. Spell, he’s carrying on with his ministry. After wrapping up an interview in his office, he proceeds to the church’s cavernous central hall for a service, passing framed press clippings about his various arrests. As the congregation files in, the pastor paces, speaking in tongues and stamping his feet.
Worship at Life Tabernacle, as at most megachurches in the U.S. South, takes the form of a concert. A three-piece band and seven backup singers join Mr. Spell onstage. A slim, besuited man with slicked-back hair, he has the mien of a 1950s crooner as he makes his way through renditions of We’ve Come to Praise Him, Way Maker and We Will Walk Through the Streets of the City. Hundreds of faithful are on their feet dancing.
Daniel Bourque, the 68-year-old retired owner of a painting company, says any limit on doing this is an unfathomable breach of something sacred. For him, he says, church is “more important” than being able to eat.
“You can buy food, but after you eat it you become hungry again,” he says. “Here, you come in and you get something directly from God.”
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