They have been getting away with it. And they will continue to get away with it. At least from a legal or law enforcement standpoint.
Central’s Life Tabernacle Church hasn’t missed much of a beat since Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has issued a series of proclamation over the Wuhan coronavirus invasion into Louisiana. The orders began at limiting gatherings to 250, then went to 50, and the current iteration places the maximum number at ten. But the church continues to hold services and events that draw hundreds and even over a thousand participants.
Drawing national attention, pastor Tony Spell claims the virus won’t affect his congregants. He calls the matter a question of religious freedom, and suggests that the First Amendment’s free exercise and assembly clauses overrides any attempts at state government restrictions.
Jurisprudence reads otherwise. Legitimate laws that apply to all, such as use of police powers (only available to state governments and their creatures, local governments), allow constitutional restrictions as long as these don’t specifically target particular religious beliefs. Such restrictions retain constitutionality if they serve a compelling reason for an important state objective by the least restrictive means. In this particular instance, keeping crowds from forming for any reason from happening to protect the health and safety of the public from a widespread and transmissible virus doesn’t narrowly target religious belief or its exercise, and anything less seems unlikely to attain the objective.
However, as a practical matter no one will enforce this, whether it’s legal or not. Breaking state law enforcing gubernatorial proclamations made under and addressing a state of emergency carries a maximum sentence of a $500 fine and/or six months in a parish jail. In Central, any of the city police, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, or Louisiana State Police can write summons for this violation, and then 19th District Attorney Hillar Moore III would decide whether to prosecute.
Central elects its police chief, currently Republican Roger Corcoran. As are all sheriffs, so is elected Republican Sid Gautreaux of East Baton Rouge Parish. And there’s no way either will send personnel to the church who start writing summonses as fast as they can, as neither would have a chance at reelection when publicity about that let loose.
Now let’s say Edwards actually orders the LSP to go in and write tickets, ignoring the fact in future elections this loses Democrats votes in the parish and (again, with publicity) perhaps statewide. Now Moore, an elected Democrat, has the choice to prosecute. If he passed on going after a clear-cut case of a nonprofit agency now receiving dedicated taxpayer dollars after it engaged in fraudulent use of public resources for electoral purposes from the political fallout that would accrue to him, there’s no way he would bring anybody to trial on this current matter.
Moore and others might bluster about clamping down on these, but they know the reality that to do this likely costs them reelection. They’ll do nothing, and Spell will keep preaching to crowds.