Louisiana church holds services, defying coronavirus stay-at-home order

By Carlos Barria

CENTRAL, La. (Reuters) - The pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge held services on Sunday in defiance of a stay-at-home order issued by Louisiana because of the coronavirus pandemic, telling worshippers they had "nothing to fear but fear itself."

Pastor Tony Spell, who was arrested last week for holding services, summoned his faithful again, three weeks after the state's governor, John Bel Edwards, banned gatherings of 10 people or more.

Hundreds of worshippers, about half of them black and half white, converged on the church, many arriving in 26 buses sent to pick them up. Everyone but immediate family members kept a social distance of at least six feet, a lawyer for the pastor said.

"They would rather come to church and worship like free people than live like prisoners in their homes," Spell told reporters.

Referring to depression and anxiety suffered by people forced to stay home, he asked, "Could it be that it is worse than the people who have already contracted this virus and died?"

Spell said he preached that people had "nothing to fear." Louisiana had recorded 13,000 confirmed cases and 477 deaths as of Sunday.

Some other Christians around the United States defied rules meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus and observed Palm Sunday at church.

Many churches opted instead to post video of virtual services on social media. Some used Zoom, the video-conferencing app which has becoming increasingly popular during the pandemic.

Joe Long, a civil rights lawyer and spokesman for Spell, said he believed the governor's March 22 order violates U.S. constitutional rights to freedom of religion and to peaceably assemble, noting 16 states have religious exemptions to stay-at-home orders.

"We believe the governor is wrong. And we look forward to proving our case in court," said Long, who said he is preparing a lawsuit against Edwards.

Central police arrested Spell on March 31 and charged him with six misdemeanors for violating the governor's executive order. Police Chief Roger Corcoran called Spell's decision to keep holding services "reckless and irresponsible."

One of those who attended the gathering at Life Tabernacle on Sunday said he embraced Spell's message.

"I'm not scared of this virus," Tim Hampton said. "When it's my time, it's my time."

But a neighbor of the church called it "utterly ridiculous" to hold services during a pandemic.

"They're just afraid there's not going to be enough money in the collection plate," Bobbye McInnis told reporters.

(Reporting by Carlos Barria in Central, Louisiana; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta and Elizabeth Culliford; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Daniel Wallis)