Louisiana pastor hosts service for over 1,800 people ignoring social distancing orders amid deadly outbreak
Tony Spell insisted the church was essential and that any attempt to close it was 'persecution of the faith'
A Louisiana pastor openly defied social distancing guidelines and held a service that attracted more than 1,000 people earlier this week even as the number of novel coronavirus cases across the US continues to skyrocket.
Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge managed to gather as many as 1,800 people to his congregation after getting people from five different parishes in buses.
It can be recalled that Lousiana Governor John Bel Edwards had earlier this month issued an emergency order barring gatherings of more than 50 people to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. On March 22, Edwards pleaded with people across the state to only leave home for essential needs like shopping for food, going to the pharmacy or caring for a family member.
Spell insisted that he was following social distancing guidelines and had taken the advice of an official from Washington who had asked him to hold his services outside, make his congregation stand six feet apart, and prevent non-family members from touching.
But a video posted on his Facebook page shows his congregation of more than 1,000 people singing, praying, touching, and worshipping close to one another inside a tent.
"This is an extreme test brought on us by the spirit of antichrist and the mystery of lawlessness," he told the gathering. "What good is the church in an hour of peril if the church craters and caves into the fears and the spirits of torment in our society?"
It's not just the government that has urged Spell and others like him to close their doors during these difficult times. Influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today has published an editorial asking pastors and church leaders to consider the consequences of their actions.
"We are being asked temporarily to convene remotely, not to deny our faith or to cease worshiping God," wrote Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "It is one thing to risk your own life in order to worship together in person, it is quite another to risk the lives of countless others when so many churches are finding creative and compelling ways to carry on in worship and community from a distance."
A change.org petition signed by more than 3,500 people titled 'We Demand The Prosecution of Pastor Spell of Life Tabernacle Church' has even called for Spell's arrest.
However, the pastor was unmoved and suggested the virus was "politically motivated." "If they close every door in this city, then I will close my doors," he told CNN. "But you can't say the retailers are essential but the church is not. That is a persecution of the faith."
Spell plans to hold his services again and claimed people had been cured of HIV-AIDS and cancer at his congregations.
Chief Roger Corcoran of the Central Police Department in Baton Rouge said the "matter is under investigation."
Louisiana has the fastest growth of coronavirus cases in the world, the governor said citing a University of Louisiana Lafayette study that showed the rate of growth in the state on a steep upward trajectory similar to that of Spain and Italy. The state also has the third-highest number of cases per capita in the US, behind just New York and Washington state, and went from 100 cases to over 1,000 cases in less than a week.