CNN Host Victor Blackwell on Sunday grilled a Louisiana pastor over his decision to host massive in-person church services during the coronavirus pandemic, despite guidance from public health officials and a stay-at-home order from the governor.
Tony Spell — the pastor of the evangelical Life Tabernacle Church in Central, outside of Baton Rouge, which is one of the cities hardest hit by the virus — was charged last week with refusing to abide by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ order that temporarily limits gatherings to 10 people.
Roughly 1,800 people attended last week’s services, Spell said during a Sunday appearance on CNN’s “New Day Weekend.” Following his interview, hundreds of worshippers gathered at the church once again, Reuters reported.
“We believe the science of this,” Spell told Blackwell. “However, we do have a command from God and there are no governing bodies that can tell us we cannot gather and worship freely.”
Blackwell asked Spell whether he believes the science that shows people who gather in large groups are at greater risk of contracting the virus.
“Yes, we believe the science,” Spell said, noting that many people who contract the virus “don’t even know they have it” and often recover from it. “People have been locked up in their homes for 22 days now. … And the hope is the last stronghold in those people’s lives.”
Blackwell continued to press him.
“If you believe the science ― and I assume you are pro-life, is that correct?” Blackwell asked Spell, using the term adopted by many people who oppose reproductive rights. Spell confirmed that he is.
“How is this a pro-life stance to put people in jeopardy of contracting a disease, getting a virus that has no treatment, no cure, often has no symptoms and has killed more than [8,500 people in the U.S.] in five weeks?” Blackwell continued.
Spell responded that “people’s hope is in the House of God.”
“If they do contract the virus, if they have fears of the virus, the church is more essential now than ever,” Spell said. “There is a physician in Jesus Christ.”
“We were supposed to be at a million-and-a-half body bags,” he added. “We’re at 8,400. So the narrative is false.”
As of Sunday afternoon, there were more than 331,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, across the country. More than 9,400 people have died. Louisiana has become one of the hot spots in recent weeks, with more than 13,000 confirmed cases and at least 477 deaths.
Late last month, President Donald Trump proposed easing social distancing measures and encouraging economic activity by Easter, which is April 12. But public health experts on the White House’s coronavirus task force convinced him to extend the restrictions, warning that millions of people could die if he didn’t.
Spell was charged last week with six misdemeanor counts of violating Edwards’ stay-at-home order. Each count carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine, reported The Associated Press.
“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,” Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said in a statement last week.
“This is not an issue over religious liberty, and it’s not about politics,” the statement continued. “We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”
Spell denied that he was seeking to promote himself.
“If this were about self-promotion then I would livestream and televise my services, which we have the ability to do but we refuse to because the word of God commands us to assemble together,” he said. “This is an attack on religious liberty in the greatest nation in the world.”
Asked what distinguishes his church from the tens of thousands of places of worship in the U.S. that are holding services online during the pandemic, Spell said “conviction.”
“Neither the pressure of our friends, family, lawsuit, jail or death will stop us from operating our convictions, which is let us go into the house of the Lord,” he said.
The Central Police Department did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.