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Police responded Tuesday night to a Louisiana church where hundreds had congregated despite the state's ban on gatherings of more than 50 people — part of the effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, said no "dictator law" could keep people from worshipping God, according to the local news.
“The virus, we believe, is politically motivated,” Spell told WAFB. “We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
Spell said his church, which normally has more than 1,000 attendees on Sunday across five locations, will be distributing “anointed handkerchiefs” to provide members with “healing virtues.”
A police officer told the pastor that the National Guard will break up future gatherings that violate the public health rules issued by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.
However, Louisiana National Guard Colonel Ed Bush said Wednesday that is not accurate.
“The National Guard has not been tasked with enforcing any of the curfew, social distancing or meeting requirements as set by the governor,” Bush said. “Our focus right now is completely with helping state agencies with preparedness and medical readiness."
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., sent a letter to Edwards last week saying the proclamation is unconstitutional when applied to houses of worship.
“I agree that all our constituents and religious leaders should follow the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC),” Higgins wrote. “However, the decision to gather should be the choice of the individual or institution and not a mandate by any government entity. The state has no authority to enforce this proclamation nor any ban on worship.”
The majority of religious leaders and services have gone online, especially after the White House issued even more strict recommendations Monday, saying people should not gather in groups of more than 10.
Dr. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, held services Sunday in compliance with the county guidelines, but he told Fox News they will be completely online going forward and urged other religious leaders to do the same.
Louisiana has at least 257 positive cases of coronavirus and four deaths connected to the disease.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.