A pastor in Louisiana is defying state orders of social distancing and church services with gatherings of hundreds of people, CNN has reported.

Pastor Tony Spell told CNN his Life Tabernacle Church drew about 1,000 people to its services on Sunday from across five different parishes.

Mr Spell had also previously denied the governor’s order not to hold gatherings of more than 50 people to host services last week.

“If they close every door in this city, then I will close my doors,” Mr Spell told the outlet on Tuesday. “But you can’t say the retailers are essential but the church is not. That is a persecution of the faith.”

Mr Spell claims the police threatened to use the National Guard to disperse the church, but police chief Roger Corcoran of the Central Police Department in Baton Rouge disputes that claim. 

“That was never told to the pastor by my office,” he said, according to CNN. 

Mr Spell also told CNN that he feels “the Covid-19 scare is politically motivated”.

The pastor said that the 1,000 congregants at Sunday’s services were spread across the church’s seven buildings in Baton Rouge, according to the report.

He also claims he was contacted by the White House but declined to say by who, and was encouraged to hold his services outside and to ask congregants to observe social distancing guidelines. Mr Spell says he is also observing social distancing. 

The Washington Post reported that the person who spoke with Mr Spell was Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Mr Perkins is one of President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisors. 

A video of Sunday’s service, posted on Spell’s Facebook page, shows members of the congregation under a tent gathered in close proximity.

In the first two weeks of March, Louisiana had “the fastest growth rate” of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards warned the state could become “the next italy” unless dramatic steps are taken to help contain the spread of the virus.

The governor issued an emergency order earlier in March barring gatherings of larger than 50 people in an effort to stop the spread of Covid-19

On Sunday the governor took further unprecedented steps to order residents to only leave home for essential needs like food shopping, medical needs or caring for a family member.

The state has confirmed more than 1,300 confirmed Covid-19 cases and at least 46 deaths, as of Tuesday,

Nonetheless, the pastor planned to continue to hold services on Tuesday evening, undeterred by a petition seeking his arrest as host of criticism from those within the community.

The online petition asking that Mr Spell be arrested and charged with reckless endangerment for disregarding the Covid-19 regulations has received almost 4,000 signatures.

Chief Roger Corcoran of the Central Police Department in Baton Rouge told CNN that the “matter is under investigation.”

Worldwide there have been over 375,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease as of Tuesday, and 16,362 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.



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