Why the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled with Tony Spell on churches during COVID, not the governor | Law courts
The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings violated the state and the U.S. Constitution, ruling that even the early days of a public health emergency should not not relegate the First Amendment to a mere “proposal”. “
Citing the fundamental importance of religious freedom, judges dismissed six misdemeanor counts against central pastor Tony Spell, who brazenly defied early restrictions that limited gatherings to 10 or 50 people – including church services .
Spell, a pastor at Life Tabernacle Church, had asked the high court to “cancel” or dismiss the charges. The decision was 5-2 for Spell and overturned a lower court ruling that denied Spell’s motion.
Chief Justice John L. Weimer and Justice Piper D. Griffin dissented.
The state’s high court relied heavily on previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings blocking other pandemic-related restrictions on religious gatherings in California and New York. The state court rejected the idea that governors should have more leeway to issue blunt orders that could infringe on rights during the early days of a public health emergency like the pandemic, when there are knew much less about the virus than today.
Rather, the court concluded that the highest level of judicial review must always apply to restrictions on these fundamental rights. This “strict control” means that the state must prove that its rules are constitutional and does not have the presumption that they are.
“We reject any assertion that at the onset of a crisis, constitutional protection of fundamental rights must always yield to the needs of the state to respond to the crisis,” says the majority opinion of Justice William J. Crane. “A public health emergency does not relegate the First Amendment to a proposition or permit violations of it to be judged on a sliding scale of constitutionality.”
“The attack on the fundamental right to the free exercise of religion, whether in times of crisis or calm, must always be scrupulously controlled by our courts,” the opinion adds.
After Edwards, a Roman Catholic, issued these orders, Spell continued to hold church services with hundreds at his Hooper Road church, even as other local churches traveled to distant services. Courting media coverage and sparking some protests for these services, Spell initially received warnings from state and local officials, but eventually engaged in a direct dispute with local authorities that led to his citation.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore, whose office prosecuted Spell, was not immediately ready Friday to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision or Spell’s case. Although Edwards weighed in on the case, he was not an official party in the dispute.
The High Court’s ruling only applies to how two early executive orders which are no longer in force – including the state home order – had dealt with church services and had been enforced in the criminal case of Spell.
The orders were issued in the early days before the virus, vaccines, masks and mandates became powerful political issues, both nationally and in Louisiana, where conservative lawmakers lobbied to limit powers governor’s emergency. The decision does not address subsequent guidelines for masking or other public health measures that Edwards and its public health officials have implemented.
But the decision would appear to raise the bar for future public health guidelines that would limit religious exercise, requiring sufficient justification and as limited an impact as possible.
Ed Richards, a law professor at LSU who focuses on health and public health policy, said the state’s decision is roughly consistent with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the past 18 last months.
But he said the trend is contrary to generations of precedents that had given public health agencies a great deal of deference and called for a much lower level of judicial oversight.
“You can see this only from the perspective of religious cases where the current (US) Supreme Court is essentially rewriting the last 240 or so years of constitutional law, which focused on the separation of church and state, meaning religion was not treated as a special entity, to a world in which religion is a privileged condition,” Richards said.
Richards said he agreed with the dissenting judges who wanted to send the case back to the state district court for more evidence.
State Attorney General Jeff Landry said the ruling was a major victory for religious freedom and accused the governor of trying to create a crime by having too many people in the church.
“Once again, the excesses of this governor have been undone in court. While it is unfortunate that it took nearly two years, I am grateful that John Bel’s unconstitutional actions have been stopped by the court,” Landry said in a statement. “This is a victory for the separation of the powers and our free exercise clause. Plus: this is a great culmination of John Bel’s hypocrisy – a punitive prayer service but not a shopping mall food service.”
In court, Edwards and state attorneys had argued that a lesser level of review was needed for the rules at this early stage of the pandemic, to allow the governor more discretion.
They had also tried to draw a distinction between Edwards’ limits and those the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in California and New York because those states’ rules came in several months after the pandemic began. Edwards’ orders took place in the first weeks of the pandemic, in March 2020.
But the majority justices found that Edwards’ rules were not the first “brutal” measures described by lawyers and that the state lacked evidence to support the differential treatment.
The judges focused on the many exemptions for businesses and other “essential” activities. These exemptions meant that participating in religious activities ended up being treated less favorably than going shopping, going to the airport or working in an office building, even when much of the public was ordered to stay home, according to the majority opinion.
The court pointed out, for example, that the state could not explain why the rules offered different treatment for time spent in a church and time spent in an office building, both of which could involve “prolonged gatherings of people near”.
“Yet under both executive orders, an unlimited number of people were permitted to stay in a single conference room in an office building for an unlimited amount of time, all in close proximity, talking, eating, and engaging in any other “normal operation “of the company,” the court wrote. “However, if ten of these people left the conference room, crossed the street to a church and entered an otherwise empty sanctuary for a worship service, they were liable to criminal prosecution.”
Dissenting from the majority, Chief Justice Weimer also noted the lack of evidence necessary to engage in the careful balancing of interests required to decide the case. He wrote that he would have referred the case to the state district court for the introduction of evidence. Judge Griffin, who also dissented, agreed with Weimer’s analysis.
Jeff Wittenbrink, who is Spell’s attorney, said Justice Crane was absolutely correct in his majority opinion and did a careful analysis of the balance between protecting basic rights and the power of the state to react in an emergency.
“Rightly, Justice Crane says, ‘Look, the state has the onus to come back and prove – to show evidence – why these exceptions were made and why it’s different from being in a conference room. and not in a church,” Wittenbrink said.
In a statement, Edwards’ office said it disagreed but accepted the court’s decision, saying its orders “were both necessary and legal.”
“Every action Governor Edwards has taken throughout the COVID pandemic has been taken with the goal of protecting the health of the public and saving lives,” the statement added.
The statement also said the governor has always “recognized the importance of places of worship during COVID, which is why they were never closed while the public health emergency was in place.”
“The governor has worked closely with faith leaders throughout the pandemic, and all have been encouraged to hold services as safely as possible to protect their congregations,” he said.
Edwards said that since those early days, the state and the nation have made “great strides” through vaccines, therapies and other mitigation efforts.
“But we must never forget the more than 17,000 Louisianans who have died from the virus or those who have been hospitalized or suffered serious illness because of it,” he added.