Defiant Louisiana pastor arrested over coronavirus protest

Spell already faces misdemeanor charges for holding in-person church services despite the ban on gatherings.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana authorities arrested a pastor on an assault charge on Tuesday after he admitted that he drove his church bus toward a man who has been protesting his decision to continue holding mass gatherings at church in defiance of public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

The police department in Central, a suburb of the capital of Baton Rouge, said on a posting on their Facebook page that Tony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, turned himself into the department and was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and improper backing. Officials said Spell also had outstanding traffic tickets.

Earlier Tuesday, Debbie Dougherty, administrative assistant to the chief at the Central Police Department said Spell had driven a church bus in reverse in the direction of the sign-holding protester.

Spell already faces misdemeanor charges for holding in-person church services despite the ban on gatherings. Authorities have said they did not book him into jail previously because they did not want to add to the jail population at a time when the highly infectious disease is running rampant. They have not taken any action to close his church.

Parishioner Nathan Boyce Thomas also faces charges of aggravated assault and reckless operation of a vehicle after being seen on video driving his white pickup truck to within about a foot of where protester Trey Bennett was standing at the road side. Police said Thomas drove at a high rate of speed, then braked just before turning into the church parking lot. Dougherty said Thomas also planned to turn himself in later Tuesday.

Bennett has kept up a one-man demonstration in front of the church near the capital of Baton Rouge since Easter Sunday, when he noticed hundreds of parishioners still attending services after the state’s stay-at-home mandate went into effect. The mandate bans gatherings of more than ten people. Houses of worship across the state have turned to online services instead.

Bennett, whose signs say “Close this Church” and “Danger – Coronavirus Incubator,” said he was used to getting scowls and verbal jabs from parishioners, but was “shocked” to see vehicles being driven at him.

Videos of the two incidents on April 19 were obtained and reviewed by The Associated Press. One shows the church bus making a sharp turn and then backing in the opposite direction of traffic on the shoulder to within a few feet of Bennett before coming to a stop. Another shows a white pickup truck swerving out of its lane and onto the shoulder within about a foot of Bennett’s body.

Spell acknowledged in a telephone interview with WAFB-TV on Monday that he was driving the bus. He said he just wanted to get out and confront the protester, but his wife talked him out of it.