Pastor’s Case Against Covid Limits is Being Revived

A prominent Christian conservative attorney from Alabama has petitioned a federal appeals court to reopen a Louisiana pastor’s damage claims against state officials stemming from long-expired COVID-19 restrictions.

This year, a federal judge dismissed clergyman Tony Spell’s lawsuit against Gov. John Bel Edwards and others over the ban’s implementation. Spell attracted national recognition for breaking the rules at his church in Central, near Baton Rouge, early in the pandemic.

Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court justice and Senate candidate, is one of Spell’s attorneys. Moore claimed this week before a panel of 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges that the state has no right to regulate church gatherings.

In taped arguments Monday in Fort Worth, Texas, panel members appeared doubtful of the notion. However, they questioned whether Spell’s church was unduly limited in comparison to other public gathering areas, such as shopping mall food courts.

Moore stated, “They have treated us differently.” “However, the foundation of our argument is that there is no jurisdiction to limit church attendance.”

Spell has won legal triumphs in his battle against the state. In May, the Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed state charges against him, saying 5-2 that Edwards’ restrictions at the time violated Spell’s religious freedom.

However, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson in Baton Rouge dismissed his lawsuit, which included claims for damages based on the gathering limits. In January, Jackson concluded that the action was irrelevant because the limits had long expired.

In addition, Jackson denied Spell’s request for restitution from state and local officials, ruling that “there is not now, and never has been, a ‘clearly established right to unrestricted religious assembly, and at all relevant times Defendants reasonably believed that they were acting within the constitutional limits set by the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit.”

On Monday, the appeal justices grilled Josh Force, an attorney for the Edwards administration, over whether church assemblies were treated differently in comparison to other public gatherings, such as crowds at shopping malls and Black Lives Matter protests.

“Isn’t the mall’s food court at least as unsafe as the religious center?” Jennifer Walker Elrod, the judge, inquired.

Force contended that Edwards was operating on the best advice available at the time from public health professionals regarding what types of gatherings were safe.

Elrod and 5th Circuit Chief Judge Priscilla Richman, both nominated to the circuit by President George W. Bush, heard the case, as did Judge Andrew Oldham, chosen by President Donald Trump.

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