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Appeals Court: States may have exceeded authority by limiting worship during pandemic

Further, the court left open the possibility of damages for past constitutional violations.


The Montgomery-based Foundation for Moral Law announced that the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana must take another look at a vitally important religious freedom case in light of several recent Supreme Court cases, which hold that a simple rational basis test is inappropriate for restrictions on church assembly.

Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was cited repeatedly by local law enforcement authorities for holding worship services allegedly in violation of executive orders of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Spell retained the legal services of the Foundation for Moral Law and its founder, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, as well as local attorney Jeff Wittenbrink.

In January 2021, Federal Judge Brian Jackson ruled that because of the pandemic, the governor’s orders supersede religious liberty rights. Jackson ruled specifically that the government had a rational basis for its policy of safety which was enough justification to restrict churches and further that Spell’s claims were moot because the governor’s orders had by that time been lifted. Spell and his attorneys appealed Jackson’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit.

Oral arguments were presented on Monday, June 7. On June 11, the Fifth Circuit unanimously vacated Jackson’s order and remanded the case to him for further consideration. The Per Curiam unpublished opinion noted that Jackson in January had not had the benefit of more recent Supreme Court opinions that required strict scrutiny of the orders of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Further, the court left open the possibility of damages for past constitutional violations. The Court, therefore, directed Jackson to reconsider Spell’s case in light of these new cases. Spell praised Moore and the Foundation for standing with him and gave ultimate credit to God.

“At Life Tabernacle Church we have always been loyal citizens, but we have always taught that when government forbids what God’s Word commands, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29),” Spell said in a statement. “We will continue to stand for the Truth and give glory to our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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“This is a great victory not only for Pastor Spell and Life Tabernacle Church, but for all churches in America,” Moore said. “The right to assemble and worship God is a fundamental right secured by the United States Constitution and does not fall within the jurisdiction of the state even in a pandemic. Federal judges should stop playing politics with our religious freedom.”

Foundation Attorney Talmadge Butts argued the case along with Moore and Wittenbrink.

“The Fifth Circuit has now recognized that earlier cases like Jacobson v. Massachusetts must now be viewed with a stricter standard, especially when fundamental rights like religious liberty are at stake,” Butts explained. “We are thankful that the Fifth Circuit has seen through the procedural barriers and that our case will now be heard on its merits. We will continue to stand with Pastor Spell through all future stages and bring this case to a successful conclusion.”

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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