“It’s a loss but I’ve never been prouder of a loss.” ~Pastor Tony Spell
The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a federal court decision that Pastor Tony Spell has no grounds for a civil lawsuit.
Pastor Mark Anthony Spell, better known as Tony Spell, has been the pastor at Life Tabernacle Church in Central for the past fourteen years. He garnered national attention for continuing church services during Covid-19. Pastor Tony Spell said the church opened in 1959 and they have never skipped church services, not even during the pandemic or his arrest.
Pastor Spell was arrested in March 2020 after he was accused of defying Louisiana & Governor John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order by holding church services at Life Tabernacle Church during the pandemic.
At the time, Spell claimed that close to 1,000 people attended each of the services at his church but the order’s gathering limit was 50 people, according to Governor Edwards’ orders.
An arrest warrant was issued by the Central Police Dept. and East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s deputies arrested Pastor Spell the next day. He was charged with six counts of violating the governor’s Covid-19 restrictions.
Then, about a month later, he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault after he was accused of coming just a few feet away from running over a protester while driving his church bus.
After his 2020 arrest, Pastor Spell filed a lawsuit in federal court in Louisiana saying his First Amendment rights had been violated. A federal court judge dismissed the case. It’s why Pastor Spell and his church appealed the dismissal before the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. They claimed state & parish officials (Governor John Bel Edwards, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran) violated their rights under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. These arguments are atypical in a case regarding the First Amendment and religion. Plaintiffs will usually argue claims under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses in these types of cases.
On Feb. 17, 2023, the Fifth Circuit upheld the lower court’s dismissal doubling down that Pastor Spell does not have any grounds for a civil lawsuit.
“Because Pastor Spell cannot prevail on the legal theory he advances, we affirm,” the ruling read. “The district court dismissed the claims for damages on grounds of qualified immunity, dismissed the claims for injunctive relief as moot, and dismissed
the supplemental state law claims.”
The court did not look into whether Pastor Spell’s constitutional rights were violated under the Free Exercise Clause because he waived that argument. Instead, the pastor argued on the grounds of Religion Clauses per the First Amendment that church gatherings are outside the government’s scope.
“We aren’t arguing that you kept the abortion clinics & liquor stores open. Our argument is you could close this whole world down, but we’re not going to close the church,” said Pastor Spell.
But the Fifth Circuit said, “Pastor Spell is the master of his case, and he cannot prevail on the theory he advances. Controlling precedent directly contradicts Pastor Spell’s jurisdictional theory of the Religion Clauses. The district court did not err in dismissing the claims as Pastor Spell argues them.”
Pastor Spell says he will be appealing to the United States Supreme Court.
“The United States Supreme Court is waiting on this case to get to them,” Pastor Spell told Unfiltered with Kiran in response to last week’s ruling. “The Louisiana Supreme Court has already stated that it violates our First Amendment rights. When it goes to the United States Supreme case, and this is the process of getting it there, hey have two choices. One is to rule in our favor and if they don’t do that, we’re gone as a country because everything hinges on our First Amendment.”
Pastor Spell said despite the ruling from the Fifth Circuit, he could not be “prouder to lose.”
“It’s a loss but I’ve never been prouder of a loss because of the wording in there. What stood out there the most from the ruling were these words: ‘Pastor Spell explicitly waived the argument that defendants’ actions violated his constitutional rights under current free exercise jurisprudence, and so we do not address that argument. In his briefing for this case, Pastor Spell instead advanced an absolute, categorical theory of the Religion Clauses, arguing that church assembly is “beyond the jurisdiction of the government”.’
“These men knew they were violating our First Amendment rights,” the pastor added.
“I have always felt our position had merit. Never have wished ill will towards the Pastor Spell or his church. Now we can continue devoting and concentrating our efforts on the future of the City of Central and the Central Police Department,” said Central Chief Roger Corcoran.
The affirmation of the Fifth Circuit was not an endorsement of Chief Corcoran’s position. As a matter of fact, had Pastor Spell followed the normal argument in these cases, as Judge Oldham said in his concurrence, joined by Judge Elrod, “Has Pastor Spell not affirmatively waived the Lukemi argument, his victory was all but assured.” In other words, two of the three judges confirmed that Corcoran would almost surely have lost his case for “qualified immunity” for violating Pastor Spell’s Constitutional rights, as the District Court assumed that he did.
Pastor Spell is seeking a decision of the highest court confirming decisions that are historically the position of the Founding Fathers- that government has no right whatsoever to interfere with assembly for religious purposes. Assembling to worship God is a God-given right, protected by the Constitution, and the Pastor is arguing an historically correct position that may well be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
By the way, the “lede” sentence is still wrong. While the dismissal was upheld, the Fifth Circuit did not rule “that Pastor Tony Spell has no grounds for a civil lawsuit.” The Fifth Circuit did not rule on the merits of the case, but on the grounds of “waiver,” that Pastor Spell had waived on appeal arguments that had been previously made, in order to have a clean case on the issue of jurisdiction. It upheld the dismissal, but it was based on the grounds that the valid arguments in his favor were “waived.”.
Finally, the Fifth Circuit also noted that the State Court claims had been dismissed “without prejudice,” because the federal claims were being dismissed. That leaves Pastor Spell’s still pending claims on the exact same issues intact in State Court, regardless of further federal court action.