Monday, May 16, 2022

Louisiana Supreme Court Quashes Charges Against Pastor Who Violated COVID Orders

In State of Louisiana v. Spell (Parish of East Baton Rouge), (LA Sup. Ct., May 13, 2022), the Louisiana Supreme Court quashed bills of information that had been issued against a pastor, charging him with violating the governor's COVID orders early in the pandemic.  The Orders limited gatherings and imposed stay-at-home mandates. The pastor continued to lead in-person worship services in violation of the Orders. The majority said in part:

Orders 30 and 33 contain exemptions allowing certain secular activities to proceed as normal without limiting the number of people permitted in a single space at the same time. In many of those gatherings, the risk of spreading the virus appears no  less prevalent than at a comparable gathering in a church. At the very least, the state offered no evidence proving otherwise. The executive orders grant preferential treatment only to secular conduct. This disparate treatment “strike[s] at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Chief Justice Weimer, joined by Justice Griffin, dissented, saying in part:

In the absence of an evidentiary record, the majority opinion takes the position that if any exceptions whatsoever were carved out from the orders, then strict scrutiny is warranted, and it was the State’s burden to establish that the orders were narrowly tailored. However, this position ignores the circumstances under which the orders were issued and, instead, holds the emergency orders to a standard of scrutiny that has thus far only been applied by the Supreme Court at a much later stage in the pandemic and at a time with much greater evidentiary knowledge

Justice Crichton filed a concurring opinion.  KAKE News reports on the decision, [Thanks to Steven H. Sholk for the lead.]