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Louisiana pastor again holds services for 1,200 despite ban

Christopher Brito

A Louisiana pastor who was charged last week for violating the governor's coronavirus ban again defied orders and held services at church for Palm Sunday, one of the most significant religious observations for Christians. Pastor Tony Spell, the leader at Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, told CBS News in an email that more than 1,200 congregants attended on Sunday.

Since Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards put forth a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people last month to stop the spread of coronavirus, Spell has continued to have worshippers at the church. He was arrested and given misdemeanor charges for violating the ban. That didn't stop him – or 1,220 people from attending on Sunday. 

"We derive our inalienable rights from God, not any government," he told CBS News on Monday. 

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Congregation members enter the Life Tabernacle Church for a Palm Sunday service in Baton Rouge, Louisiana despite statewide stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus. CLAIRE BANGSER

Spell said attendees did observe six feet of distancing at the services, but did not wear face masks. The pastor said the church is cleaned daily and boasted it's cleaner than open gas stations, Walmart and Sam's Club. 

Spell confirmed to CBS News that he is preparing to sue over the governor's ban. Joe Long, Spell's lawyer, told Reuters that he believed Edwards' order violated the U.S. constitutional rights to freedom of religion and to peaceably assemble. States like Florida, North Carolina and Arizona have exempted religious services from their state-wide stay-at-home orders. However, Louisiana has not. 

"We believe the governor is wrong," he said. "And we look forward to proving our case in court." 

CBS News reached out to Long about the pending lawsuit, but did not immediately hear back. 

After being arrested he last week, he continued to defend the gatherings despite the state-wide order. 

"We are not posing any more threat with COVID-19 than people who are at Walmart by the hundreds right now," he said. "Do not close the church's doors as long as one retailer in this city is open."  

Unlike Spell, some religious services have gone online. 

"We decided to do virtual services after we heard the projections for the number of cases that were expected at that time, and now we see that it has become a reality," said Rev. Calvin Butts, a New York City-based pastor. "And we were convinced that the health and safety of our congregants comes first."

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