BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Republican Louisiana lawmakers trying to chisel away at Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions Wednesday sought to protect a Baton Rouge area pastor charged with violating those rules and advanced legislation that would keep emergency orders from governing churches.
The House criminal justice committee voted 6-3 for a bill by Oil City Republican Rep. Danny McCormick that would grant immunity from fines, penalties and prosecution to anyone “assembling to exercise religious freedom” during a publicly declared emergency.
“Some of the people didn’t attend church just out of the fear of being arrested and humiliated. And I think we need to send a clear message to Louisiana that our religious freedoms are alive and well,” McCormick said.
The bill is one of dozens filed in the special session that seek to undermine the Democratic governor’s coronavirus emergency rules, which currently include restrictions on businesses, crowd size limits at sporting events and a statewide mask mandate.
Republican lawmakers are proposing everything from eliminating specific rules and banning enforcement of the orders to prohibiting future enactment of restrictions and revoking the existing public health emergency declaration. They’re also looking for ways to give themselves more authority to jettison future orders in any emergency, whether a pandemic, a hurricane or an other disaster.
After Wednesday’s debates, lawmakers planned to take a break from the monthlong special session and head home ahead of Hurricane Delta, which threatens to hit Louisiana with ferocious wind and storm surge later this week.
McCormick’s church protection bill would be retroactive to March 11, a move aimed at ending the prosecution of Tony Spell, minister at Life Tabernacle Church in Central, for violating Edwards’ ban on large gatherings. Spell and several of his supporters attended Wednesday’s hearing.
Baton Rouge Rep. Ted James, the committee chairman, was among three Democrats who voted against the bill. He said the Supreme Court has cautioned against passing retroactive laws.
“I’m a criminal defense lawyer. I would love to go pass a whole bunch of laws that are retroactive and get some people out of trouble,” James said.
Spell was charged in April with several misdemeanor offenses for repeatedly holding in-person church services with hundreds of people not distanced from each other, in defiance of the governor’s restrictions on crowd sizes at the time. Spell also was arrested later on an assault charge for driving a church bus toward a man protesting his decision. The cases are pending.
Edwards has since loosened crowd size limits on churches and many other places.
But Spell’s supporters — and Republican lawmakers on the House committee — said Edwards never had the authority to enact such regulations on religious activity. A federal judge rejected those arguments in a lawsuit filed by Spell, refusing to issue an injunction against the governor.
“The church does not need the state’s permission to serve and worship our Lord as he has commanded. We belong to Christ alone,” said Susan Raborn, a Baton Rouge attorney and Spell supporter.
Spell called Edwards a “godless governor.” That provoked James to chastise Spell and defend Edwards, a devout Catholic who regularly invokes prayer and God in speeches and briefings.
“We’re not going to question the religious faith of the governor, not in here. This is not your church,” James said.
Baton Rouge Rep. Denise Marcelle was the only Democrat in the committee to support sending the measure to the full House for debate. All Republicans present for the debate voted for the bill.
“My vote needs to be for what I think God wants me to do,” said Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican.