Court orders new look at minister’s virus restriction suit


NEW ORLEANS — A federal appeals court has revived a Louisiana minister’s lawsuit challenging now-expired coronavirus restrictions on church services.

Tony Spell repeatedly flouted the public health restrictions last year at his Life Tabernacle Church in the Baton Rouge suburb of Central. His lawsuit sought damages from Gov. John Bel Edwards and an injunction blocking the restrictions.

In November, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson in Baton Rouge rejected the injunction request as moot because the restrictions were being eased. And he said Spell was not entitled to damages.

Spell’s attorneys appealed and arguments were heard Monday by three judges at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Friday night, the panel said the judge should look at the case again in light of three recent Supreme Court opinions blocking some restrictions on indoor worship in New York and California.

“In making its determinations, the district court did not have the benefit of considering the Supreme Court’s recent cases regarding how the Free Exercise Clause applies in the particular context of state-imposed COVID-19 restrictions,” the unsigned ruling from the three judges said.

“We express no opinion on the merits of this case,” the judges said, while ordering Jackson to re-examine whether Spell and his church are entitled to damages.

In state court, Spell faces six state criminal counts as a result of defying the restrictions.

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