Defiant pastor in Louisiana arrested after incident with bus, protester

Pastor Tony Spell, who defied state orders against large gatherings, is accused of backing a bus dangerously close to a protester near his church in Central, Louisiana.
Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Baton Rouge
Pastor Tony Spell drives a bus with local residents as they leave Life Tabernacle Church after attending Easter services, challenging state orders against assembling in large groups to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, near Baton Rouge, La., on April 12, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters

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By David K. Li

A Louisiana pastor who has defied state orders against large gatherings was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly backing his church bus dangerously close to a protester.

Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in the city of Central, near Baton Rouge, was charged with aggravated assault in connection to the incident that was caught on tape, police said.

The incident happened Sunday on the side of a road in front of the suspect's church.

Spell, wearing a suit and tie, was handcuffed by police officers wearing face masks as he turned himself in Tuesday morning.

After posting bail, Spell was greeted by cheering supporters outside the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

"My right to have church and to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ are endowed by my creator — not my district attorney, not my chief of police and not my Gov. John Bel Edwards," Spell proclaimed. "I cannot give up those rights. God forbids me to give up those rights."

Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said local authorities are trying to enforce the law and insisted that Spell isn't being denied his freedom to practice religion.

"They're trying to make a mockery of this, like he's some kind of victim," Corcoran told NBC News on Monday night. "No one, not one person, is trying to stop him from preaching the Word."

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Spell has openly defied bans on gatherings of more than 50 people, a restriction Edwards announced on March 16 to help curb the coronavirus pandemic.

Spell's attorney, Joseph Long, said his client would be vindicated.

"A fair viewing of the video will prove that Spell did not attempt to run over the protester, and the protester did not feel threatened, as he never moved when the bus came near," Long said.

Another attorney who had worked for Spell, Jeff Wittenbrink, 59, was reported to have been hospitalized last week for COVID-19, the disease associated with coronavirus.

And Harold Orillion, a 78-year old Life Tabernacle Church member, died from complications related to COVID-19, according to documents obtained in a public records request by NBC affiliate WVLA.