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Louisiana pastor defies stay-at-home order, holds services for hundreds

Los Angeles Times — By Molly Hennessy-Fiske Los Angeles Times

March 25-- HOUSTON-Despite a stay-at-home order this week from Louisiana's governor, the Rev. Tony Spell was praying over a woman in his Baton Rouge church Wednesday morning.

"God, in the name of Jesus, I want you to touch her; I want you to heal her body; I want the spirit of peace and God to go forth with her," the evangelical pastor intoned.

As city and state officials across the country ordered people to remain at home to combat the virus's spread, people have been defying those orders: partying on beaches, picnicking in parks and hiking in groups. But Spell's Pentecostal services in Baton Rouge, which drew 1,800 people last Sunday, pose a unique challenge in this deeply Christian state where counties are referred to as parishes-one that pits constitutional rights to freedom of religion and speech against efforts to protect public health.

Critics posted a petition online demanding Louisiana officials charge Spell with reckless endangerment. More than 3,900 people have signed it.

"Our lives matter! This minister is putting our lives in danger and needs to pay the price!" wrote petitioner Van Maulden of Zachary, La.

The stakes are particularly high in Louisiana, where doctors say large gatherings during Mardi Gras last month likely fostered COVID-19, as revelers filled Bourbon Street, caught packed streetcars and marched in parades. It's now spreading faster there than anywhere else in the world, with 1,388 cases and 46 deaths, most of those in New Orleans.

"Most infections in this area occurred during Mardi Gras. There was probably a tremendous number of people infected then, probably with no symptoms," said Dr. Brobson Lutz, former director of New Orleans Health Department.

Even before Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay-at-home order Sunday, many of the state's churches had scaled back, canceling Mass and services. In New Orleans, the Rev. Fred Luter, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told worshippers at the megachurch he built after Hurricane Katrina to watch online.

"I preached to empty seats. They didn't even do that during Katrina," he said last week in the empty church. "It's a new day."

In the city's 9th Ward, decimated by Katrina, the Rev. Charles Duplessis had planned to reopen his Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church on Easter but decided to postpone, instead turning services and Bible study virtual.

"We're trying to keep people distancing but also in communication," he said as he stood outside the empty church.

Late Tuesday, about 300 people gathered at Spell's Baton Rouge church, Life Tabernacle, where anointed handkerchiefs were passed out to parishioners.

"This is an extreme test brought on us by the spirit of antichrist and the mystery of lawlessness," Spell preached. "What good is the church in an hour of peril if the church craters and caves in to the fears and the spirits of torment in our society?"

Spell said his church and others that had remained open in Louisiana should be considered essential during a pandemic. He said no one at his church had tested positive for COVID-19.

"Retailers in my city have hundreds of people in there now," Spell said. "Why am I being persecuted for my faith and people being refused to go to church whenever you can still go to a retailer?"

Spell said police initially told him that if he continued services, the National Guard would disperse them. Local police did not return calls Wednesday, although the chief told CNN that never happened. Edwards' office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Spell said he had spoken with Tony Perkins, president of the evangelical Family Research Council and one of President Donald Trump's religious advisers, and "he has been a big help for us," offering encouragement.

Some of Life Tabernacle's 9,800 members are bused in from half a dozen neighboring parishes. The church has never closed in 60 years, even during floods, Spell said. They're a diverse group, hailing from 19 countries. Some who have attended services were afraid of being stigmatized, he said, "deemed exposed to COVID," even though "people are exposed at these retailers that are still open."

"You cannot keep a nation locked up," he said. "They are coming to church for hope."

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