Since the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Greg Locke, the pastor at a Nashville-area church, has repeatedly called covid a hoax, undermined emergency mandates and refused to comply with guidance from public health officials.
This week, Locke took his defiance a step further, making a sharp warning regarding mask-wearing.
If "you start showing up [with] all these masks and all this nonsense, I will ask you to leave," Locke, 45, told scores of Global Vision Bible Church parishioners during his sermon on Sunday. His statement was followed by cheers and applause.
"I am not playing these Democrat games up in this church," he added.
Global Vision Bible Church did not immediately respond to The Washington Post's request for comment.
Locke's fiery five-minute diatribe, in which he also denied the existence of the delta variant, comes as vaccination rates in his home state slow and infection rates climb. So far, about 44 percent of Tennesseans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to The Post's vaccine tracker, making it among the states with the lowest rate. The state recently reported that 98 percent of people who died of covid and 97 percent of covid hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated.
Video: The fight against evangelical vaccine hesitancy
The vaccine rollout in Tennessee made national headlines after the controversial firing of the state's top immunization official, Michelle Fiscus, on July 12. Fiscus's firing was the casualty of the Tennessee Department of Health's campaign to encourage teenagers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. The effort attracted ire from Republican state lawmakers.
In an interview with WTVF on Monday, Fiscus said Tenn. Gov. Bill Lee (R) consistently resisted the state's promotion of the vaccine.
"I feel like the [health] department was gagged," she said.
Locke's evangelical church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., about 20 miles east of downtown Nashville, has grown during the pandemic, CNN reported. The pastor's controversial commentary on covid and the 2020 presidential election has attracted far-right churchgoers.
During a sermon last month, Locke called President Biden a fraud and "a sex trafficking, demon-possessed mongrel," a reference to QAnon, an extremist ideology based on false claims.
He has also falsely claimed that the pandemic is "fake," that the death count is "manipulated" and that the vaccine is a "dangerous scam."
And the pastor has preached misinformation about the vaccine, including falsely claiming that it's made of "aborted fetal tissue."
During a sermon in May, Locke told churchgoers that he wasn't getting the vaccine and would refuse to promote it.
"I discourage everybody under this tent to get it," he said, according to CNN.
Locke has also openly defied the state's emergency mandates. In July 2020, he posted on Facebook that the church was remaining open and that people did not have to wear masks or social distance.
"I don't care if they send the military, they roll up in there with tanks . . . ladies and gentleman, we are staying open," he said, according to Newsweek. "We are packed to capacity. You ain't gotta wear a mask."
Strutting back and forth on a stage beneath a sprawling red-and-white striped circus tent on Sunday, Locke launched into yet another impassioned monologue. This time, he warned churchgoers to not wear masks and railed against the possibility of more shutdowns.
"They will be serving Frostys in hell before we shut this place down, just because a buck wild, demon-possessed government tells us to," Locke said, referencing the frozen dessert from Wendy's.
"Don't believe this delta variant nonsense," he continued. "Stop it!"
He advised parishioners who are looking for services with social distancing "don't come to this one" and chastised other churches for following public health advisories and abstaining from certain rituals as cases rise.
"A bunch of pastors talking about how much they want to see people heal, and they're afraid to baptize people because of a delta variant - I'm sick of it," Locke said. "I ain't playing these stupid games."
Toward the end of his rant, Locke made one final warning.
"I'm going to be a problem moving forward," he said. "I'm not giving in to this mess."