Louisiana pastor who flouted coronavirus orders faces arrest warrant for backing up church bus toward protester

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Louisiana authorities have issued an arrest warrant for a defiant pastor, who flouted a prohibition on large gatherings by holding services that drew hundreds of followers, over nearly hitting a protester with a church bus over the weekend.

The warrant for Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge accuses him of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and improper backing of a vehicle during the Sunday incident, a Central Police Department dispatcher told Fox News.

As of Monday evening, he had not been taken into police custody, the dispatcher said.

Spell was reportedly filmed backing a church bus toward a protester outside the church before stopping a few feet away from him, according to local media reports.

An arrest warrant was issued for Tony Spell, inset, a pastor at the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, for reportedly backing a church bus toward a protester. Spell has held large church services despite an order prohibiting such gatherings. (Google Maps/Facebook)

An arrest warrant was issued for Tony Spell, inset, a pastor at the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, for reportedly backing a church bus toward a protester. Spell has held large church services despite an order prohibiting such gatherings. (Google Maps/Facebook)

“That man has been in front of my church driveway for three weeks now,” Spell told WAFB-TV on Monday. “He shoots people obscene finger gestures and shouts vulgarities.

“I was pulling in from my bus route, picking up black children who haven’t eaten because of this sinister policy that has closed schools,” he added. “I was going to approach this gentleman and ask him to leave.”

The protester, Trey Bennett, told the news station that he's been demonstrating outside of the church since Easter Sunday. One of his signs reads: “CAUTION: Coronavirus incubator. Do not enter. You may die.”

Calls and messages to the church from Fox News were not returned.

While most churches have transitioned to virtual religious services amid the coronavirus pandemic, Spell continued to hold in-person services with hundreds of followers despite a stay-at-home order issued by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

One Sunday service drew an estimated 500 parishioners. He was arrested last month and charged with six misdemeanor counts for violating the order.

"Instead of showing the strength and resilience of our community during this difficult time, Mr. Spell has chosen to embarrass us for his own self-promotion," the Central Police Department said in a Facebook post said at the time of the arrest.

"This is not an issue over religious liberty, and it’s not about politics," the police added. "We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law."

Spell told Fox News after the arrest for allegedly flouting the mandate that he was exercising his First Amendment rights and a mandate from Jesus Christ. His attorney, Jeff Wittenbrink, was hospitalized last week after contracting the virus himself.

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One parishioner who attended services at the church reportedly died from COVID-19 last week, according to media reports.

Churches in several states are suing local and state governments over similar bans on large gatherings, arguing the mandates violate their religious freedom and right to assembly.