The legal drama starts, and it might cost some political careers along the way without accomplishing much of anything.
Tuesday, Central’s Life Tabernacle Church minister Tony Spell received summons from the Republican Police Chief Roger Corcoran, with six charges of violating R.S. 29:724.
That law gives the governor emergency powers including the issuance of proclamations to limit gatherings, and lists penalties up to a $500 fine and six months imprisonment. Spell allegedly violated it when he preached to considerably more people on several occasions than allowed since Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards began issuing orders with limitations because of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.
It didn’t change anything. That night, Spell conducted regularly-scheduled services before another crowd, which produced another set of summonses. And he’ll keep on going until he’s cuffed and jailed, which would be a public relations disaster for any politician involved.
And it likely will cost Corcoran his job. A longtime sheriff’s deputy, in 2018 he knocked off an incumbent which the mostly part-time or volunteer force at that time didn’t receive well. No doubt an opponent from those resenting the transition will surface and demagogue the incident into Corcoran having a hostile attitude towards religion. Meanwhile, a few hundred church members will vote for anybody but him, and tell all their friends to do the same. Plus, the local newspaper Central City News has cheered on Spell in a defense of First Amendment rights to worship and assemble, which should lead to its skewering Corcoran for the next two years.
Worse, it’s the gift that will keep on giving, because the case may not have concluded by 2022. Jurisprudence is such that Spell would be an underdog to prevail, but he seems fully committed to his defense and undoubtedly some public interest law firm somewhere would take his case, likely entirely free of charge, to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. So, it will continue to make the news from time to time.
Which should give 19th District Attorney Democrat Hillar Moore III pause in his prosecution decisions. Up for reelection this year and already in campaign mode, if he prosecutes this could open the door to a black Democrat taking advantage of changing demographics to use this as a wedge issue among white religious voters, especially if a Republican enters the race, to make Moore miss a runoff.
Additionally, citing only Spell has weakened the case against him. By suffering this fate alone, he more credibly can assert that selective prosecution based upon animus to his publicized religious beliefs occurred. Central can’t combat that tactic by sending officers into the church and writing citations like confetti because that would bring only more bad public relations.
Bottom line: this move won’t stop Spell and the crowds he gathers, and sets up a legal cage match that could end some political careers.