BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A plea deal has been offered to a Louisiana pastor who was arrested after he repeatedly defied COVID-19 restrictions put in place in the early days of the pandemic.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore confirmed Monday that his office offered Pastor Tony Spell a deal that would allow Spell to plead no contest to one of the misdemeanor charges he faces in exchange for the five other charges being dropped, multiple news agencies reported. A no-contest plea doesn't require a person to admit guilt, but it eliminates paths to appeal criminal charges.
Spell was arrested last year and accused of six counts of violating the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions by having too many people gathered inside his church, Life Tabernacle Church, for various services.
Jeff Wittenbrink, Spell’s lawyer, said that before his client will consider the plea offer, he wants to see an opinion from the state’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeals on the constitutionality of Gov. John Bel Edwards' early order limiting crowd sizes to 10 people.
“The district attorney has been very respectful and very reasonable," Wittenbrink said. “But we just have a difference of opinion on whether ... this action by the governor is constitutional. And, the latest United States Supreme Court cases tend to swing on our side.”
Spell has argued Edwards’ restrictions are infringements on constitutional protections to freely exercise religion, and he has sought relief in state and federal courts, which have either declined to take up the matter or ruled in favor of the governor, The Advocate reported.
Though his challenges have been unsuccessful, recent rulings — including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last November preventing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from imposing restrictions on religious services — may see courts rehear cases that weren’t taken up before.
Edwards has since relaxed restrictions on crowd sizes, prompting the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to find that one of Spell’s challenges was no longer relevant.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year declined to hear the case months after the lower court’s decision.
Moore said he doesn’t expect Spell to take the deal and expects the matter will go to trial. A court hearing is scheduled for June 1.
Spell hasn’t appeared in any of his in-person court hearings because courthouse officials require that masks be worn, and he refuses to comply.