HOUSTON -- Despite a stay-at-home order this week from Louisiana's governor, the Rev. Tony Spell was praying over a woman in his Baton Rouge church Wednesday morning.
"God, in the name of Jesus, I want you to touch her; I want you to heal her body; I want the spirit of peace and God to go forth with her," the evangelical pastor intoned.
As city and state officials across the country ordered people to remain at home to combat the virus's spread, people have been defying those orders: partying on beaches, picnicking in parks and hiking in groups. But Spell's Pentecostal services in Baton Rouge, which drew 1,800 people last Sunday, pose a unique challenge in this deeply Christian state where counties are referred to as parishes -- one that pits constitutional rights to freedom of religion and speech against efforts to protect public health.
Critics posted a petition online demanding Louisiana officials charge Spell with reckless endangerment. More than 3,900 people have signed it.
"Our lives matter! This minister is putting our lives in danger and needs to pay the price!" wrote petitioner Van Maulden of Zachary, La.
The stakes are particularly high in Louisiana, where doctors say large gatherings during Mardi Gras last month likely fostered COVID-19, as revelers filled Bourbon Street, caught packed streetcars and marched in parades. It's now spreading faster there than anywhere else in the world, with 1,388 cases and 46 deaths, most of those in New Orleans.
"Most infections in this area occurred during Mardi Gras. There was probably a tremendous number of people infected then, probably with no symptoms," said Dr. Brobson Lutz, former director of New Orleans Health Department.
Even before Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay-at-home order Sunday, many of the state's churches had scaled back, canceling Mass and services. In New Orleans, the Rev. Fred Luter, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told worshippers at the megachurch he built after Hurricane Katrina to watch online.
"I preached to empty seats. They didn't even do that during Katrina," he said last week in the empty church. "It's a new day."
In the city's 9th Ward, decimated by Katrina, the Rev. Charles Duplessis had planned to reopen his Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church on Easter but decided to postpone, instead turning services and Bible study virtual.