‘True Christians do not mind dying,’ defiant pastor says

A Louisiana preacher cited by police 6 times for ignoring a state ban on large gatherings is shrugging off criticism that he’s endangering his flock.

“True Christians do not mind dying,” he said in an interview.

He’s called stay-at-home orders “tyranny,” and sends fleets of buses to gather up parishioners for Sunday services. Read story here.

There’s a lot of food for thought here. Despite their fierce belief in personal freedom, Americans are tolerant of government intrusion into their lives in the name of social necessity.

Many times in our history, government actions have come in conflict with individual liberty. Prominent examples include Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, military conscription, wartime rationing, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2, etc. Courts usually have sided with the civil authority in these instances.

Few would question this preacher’s right to express his religious views, no matter how wrongheaded or misguided they may seem to others. Our system draws a bright line between thoughts or speech versus actions, and most Americans are aware of this distinction and understand it well. Generally, we let people think and say what they want with few limitations, but behavior that impacts others is considered a legitimate matter of community concern.

The stay-at-home edict now in effect in most states, including Louisiana, are intended to slow and minimize the spread of the deadly coronavirus through our communities. Social distancing is proving to be the most effective way we currently have of containing this epidemic. Thus, the government bans on social gatherings serves a legitimate purpose, are justified by the circumstances, and for now are the least restrictive method we have of limiting the infection rate.

People are literally dying from this disease, in large numbers, and slowing its spread is crucial to preventing our medical resources from being overrun.

Temporarily closing churches does not tell anyone what to believe, nor does it impinge on religious speech, because services can still be conducted by virtual means. It’s easy to argue the preacher doesn’t have a right to take risks with public health. This potentially affects not only his parishioners, but the entire community, because if they get sick they’re likely to spread it in the larger community.

So, are civil authorities justified in stepping in and the stay-at-home order, in order to keep the larger community safe? And if so, how far should they go to enforce the ban on gatherings? Should the preacher be jailed? Should police or National Guard troops surround his church and deny access to it, to prevent these gatherings? And what if a large number of his parishioners get sick, there aren’t enough medical resources to go around, and they want to go to the front of the line for medical care? How should that be handled?

These are tough questions. I don’t have much sympathy for stubborn people who defy reasonable directives and endanger themselves and others. But I think the powers of government must always be used judiciously and compassionately to the extent consistent with the primary objectives of winning a war, protecting public health and safety, or whatever the exigency may be.

In this case, the authorities have acted with restraint, and I do not feel they should get heavy-handed just because the preacher is being a jerk. Their focus should continue to be keeping everyone safe, and searching out the most effective and least restrictive ways of doing that. This is what government authorities should always do during a public emergency like the one we’re facing now.

Update: One of Pastor Spell’s parishioners has died from Covid-19, and the church’s lawyer has fallen ill, Huffington Post reported on April 17, 2020. Meanwhile, Pastor Spell is asking his flock to donate their $1,200 stimulus checks to his church and other evangelists and missionaries. Read story that here.

Photo: Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, Louisiana, has refused to stop holding mass church services in defiance of the governor’s ban on large gatherings.



3 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Mark Adams #

    The preacher is acting according to the books of the New Testament. Christians following their beliefs to death when Rome was a pagan city. He is acting in the tradition of Augustines “City of God.” He has a chunk of about 500 years of history saying this is what true Christians do. He also has the Christians who healed the sick during the black death and those who healed the sick during the 1918 Spanish flu.

    The US Constitution is specific and most likely the Louisiana state constitution is as well. The state of Louisiana will lose the case and this man will be a martyr because of these illegal actions of the government. Our government is not permitted to do what many state governments are doing and there are those who have strong beliefs who will defy the government for their religion. They are in the right though I may disagree with their religion, I have given an oath to the Constitution to uphold their freedom of religion, even if they risk their health and lives.

  2. Mark Adams #

    The wording of the Louisiana is identical or nearly identical to the US Constitution:

    §8. Freedom of Religion
    Section 8. No law shall be enacted respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    What is happening in Louisiana and other states is what is prohibited by the US Constitution and in nearly every state that states constitution. Better to make all these pastors rabbis, holy men part of our war effort on the virus and encourage some praying and help to the folk who need it.

  3. Roger Rabbit #

    Legal language must always be read in light of how courts will interpret it. Personal interpretations mean nothing.

    It’s clear from history and court rulings that individual rights can be subordinated to certain public interests, especially those having to do with national security or public health and safety.

    In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state’s power to protect public health can supersede an individual’s right to be left alone. In that case, the SC upheld a fine against a preacher who defied a health board’s order to get vaccinated against smallpox. The case is Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 25 S.Ct. 358, 49 L.Ed. 643 (1905).*

    (* SC cases are reported in the official Supreme Court Reports and the privately published Supreme Court Reporter and Lawyer’s Edition. It’s customary to cite all three because many small law libraries subscribe to only one of them.)

    There are numerous other cases where the Supreme Court upheld government actions that infringed on individual rights, such as the World War 2 internment of Japanese-Americans (Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S.Ct. 193, 89 L.Ed. 194 (1944). Very recently, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas can order abortions halted to conserve medical supplies; and if states can do this, then logically they also can close churches to prevent a contagion from spreading in the community.

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