Alito Slaps Down Megachurch Pastor’s Lawsuit That Claimed Obeying God Meant Ignoring COVID-19 Orders – By Aaron Keller (Law and Crime) / Nov 28 2020
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito flatly rejected a plea by a Louisiana megachurch pastor to keep his church fully open against orders from the government to limit the size of worship gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That pastor, Tony Spell, whose full legal name is Mark Anthony Spell, earlier this year opened his doors to some 1,800 congregants in violation of orders by the governor that limited the size of gatherings and required social distancing measures.
The application, styled as Spell v. Edwards, complained that the orders by Gov. John Bel Edwards forbade the Life Tabernacle Church from being “fully assemble[d].” In a more legally astonishing question, the case also sought to ask whether the “First Amendment give[s] the Church exclusive jurisdiction over whether to assemble or not.” In other words, the church sought to have the Supreme Court declare its assembly function as beyond state action or reproach. In one passage, the application suggests Spell was merely “[f]ollowing his religious conviction that he must obey God rather than man” when he chose to keep his church fully open. The application later argues that the First Amendment separation of church and state “was to protect the church from the state.”
From the petitioners’ application:
In Louisiana, one pastor and his church have been fighting since March 2020 for the right that God gives them and the Constitution of the United States secures to them: the right to assemble for church in person. Because of their supposed disobedience to Governor Edwards’ orders, the State of Louisiana has brought nine criminal charges against Pastor Tony Spell in three phases during the span of this litigation. Not only has Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards refused to respect the First Amendment rights of Pastor Spell and his church, but he has just refused an order of his own legislature to end the state of emergency that purportedly gives him the power to issue emergency orders.
This case presents a threshold question that other applicants did not present to this Court in prior religious liberty challenges: Whether the First Amendment places the decision of whether to assemble solely within the jurisdiction of the Church and not the State. Based on a historical analysis of the First Amendment and the Court’s leading precedents, Applicants herein believe the answer is yes. If it does, then Respondents have no authority to restrict the right of Pastor Spell and his church to meet.