Baffling: Supreme Court rejects pastor’s case involving violations of the ban on large gatherings

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Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has rejected a request from a Louisiana pastor who’d sought emergency relief from criminal charges he faces for the apparent crime of holding large church services in contravention of the state’s coronavirus rules.

Last spring Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell was charged with six counts of violating Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’s ban on large gatherings. In response, Spell filed suit in May, but various lower courts ultimately ruled against him.

As the months passed, Spell wound up accruing three additional charges, making for a total of nine. Now fast-forward to last week, when he filed a motion with Justice Alito requesting an injunction against the charges he faces.

In making the request, he framed the issue as one of religious liberty.

“Out of all the religious liberty cases across the country challenging a State’s COVID-19 orders, there has never been a more fundamental question presented nor more flagrant unconstitutional punishment of a pastor than here,” the request reads.

“The State has shown a shocking and unprecedented commitment to criminally prosecuting its strongest dissenter in violation of one of the First Amendment’s most precious guarantees: the right of a church, which by definition is an assembly, to decide whether to assemble or not.”

It further notes that Edwards “not only refuses to recognize these rights” but that he “chooses which First Amendment rights to support and which to deny.”

“Without this Court’s immediate intervention, there is no guarantee that the State will not bring a new set of absurd criminal charges against Pastor Spell as it has done now nine times. The Court’s intervention is warranted,” the request continues.

View the request below:

Tony Spell request to Alito by V Saxena on Scribd

For reasons that remain unclear, Alito outright rejected the request — meaning it won’t receive a full hearing in the Supreme Court — without even providing comment.

His rejection came as a shocker given how he and the court’s other conservative justices had ruled earlier in the week in a case involving New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s equally restrictive coronavirus lockdown rules.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court decided in favor of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America. Both entities had sued Cuomo over discriminatory lockdown restrictions that that effectively punished houses of worship while letting liquor stores and bike shops off the hook.

Writing the per curiam opinion (meaning several justices contributed to it), Justice Neil Gorsuch noted, “It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques.”

While Alito didn’t pen a written opinion, he, Gorsuch and Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanagh and Clarence Thomas all took the same side.

It would seem that undergirding both the case in New York and the case in Louisiana are attacks on religious liberty. Yet Alito clearly thought otherwise.

His startling ruling also comes only two weeks after he himself delivered a speech in which he specifically warned of how the COVID crisis is being exploited by some to hasten the demonstrable ongoing erosion of civil liberties granted by the U.S. Constitution.

Speaking at the Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention, he focused particularly hard on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

“The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty. … [W]e have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive and prolonged as those experienced, for most of 2020,” he said.

“Think of all the live events that would otherwise be protected by the right to freedom of speech — live speeches, conferences, lectures, meetings. Think of worship services, churches closed on Easter Sunday, synagogues closed for Passover on Yom Kippur War.”

Speaking on Newsmax around the time that he filed his request with Alito, Spell was hopeful that the justice would keep these words in mind when reviewing his case.

“His comments give us tremendous hope, seeing that just Tuesday — six days ago — we were dismissed out of the federal court in Louisiana by Judge Brian Jackson with prejudice,” Spell said.

“He’s saying they were totally constitutional and totally legal to do what they did. All we are doing is practicing our First Amendment rights, which is Congress shall make no law [abridging] an establishment of religion.”

The pastor added, “We are standing on the word of God that is protected by the Constitution of the United States. Now, our right to assemble … are inalienable rights given to us, endowed by our creator. That word inalienable means the state cannot take them from me.”

Indeed it does, yet amid the coronavirus these inalienable rights have continually been violated.

Listen to Spell’s remarks below:

Vivek Saxena

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