Louisiana court keeps mask-free pastor out of his hearing for defying pandemic safeguards

FILE PHOTO: Pastor Tony Spell is seen as he welcomes local residents for Eastern mass at the Life Tabernacle megachurch challenging state orders against assembling in large groups to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Baton Rouge Louisiana U.S., April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

(Reuters) - A Louisiana megachurch pastor charged with repeatedly violating state coronavirus orders was denied entry to his court hearing Tuesday morning after refusing to wear a face mask.

Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, was charged in late March with violating stay-at-home orders implemented by Governor John Bel Edwards. His lawyer pleaded not guilty Tuesday morning while Spell remained outside.

Spell has made national headlines since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic for defying public health safety rules. He continued to hold church services despite restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people, including a Palm Sunday gathering he has claimed exceeded 1,000 congregants.

Since then, his standoffs with authorities have grown increasingly heated. In April he was charged with aggravated assault and arrested after backing up a bus towards a protester standing outside his church.

He has continued to hold boisterous church services for large, unmasked indoor congregations. “We never said anybody wouldn’t get sick, we never said anybody wouldn’t die,” he said in a recording of a Sept. 20 service posted by a local outlet called Central City News. “We did say we would never close, even if we die.”

In interviews with local media, Spell has downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, telling The Advocate in May that 80,000 deaths were “not a large number,” and vowing not to heed state health restrictions.

Public officials have not released any data about whether any congregants at Life Tabernacle have been infected with the virus. The Advocate newspaper and other local outlets reported in April that a 78-year-old congregant had died after contracting the virus, a claim Spell disputed.

Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio