Court dismisses Louisiana pastor’s virus restrictions suit

(AP) — A Louisiana pastor’s lawsuit over Gov. John Bel Edwards’ past COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings was rejected for a second time Wednesday by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson in Baton Rouge said the lawsuit by Tony Spell seeking an order blocking the restrictions is moot because the restrictions expired long ago. And Jackson rejected Spell’s request for damages from state officials.

Spell garnered national attention in March 2020 when he began to flout the state’s public health order at a time when much of the country was in lockdown over the emergence of COVID-19. Louisiana was being hit especially hard at the time, but hundreds showed up to hear Spell claim that the virus was nothing to be concerned about.

Jackson first rejected the lawsuit in November 2020. The following July, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that the judge should look at the case again in light of three recent Supreme Court opinions blocking some restrictions on indoor worship in New York and California. The panel stressed that it wasn’t ruling on the merits of the case.

“Plaintiffs’ demand for damages fails because there is not now, and never has been, a ‘clearly established’ right to unrestricted religious assembly, and at all relevant times Defendants reasonably believed that they were acting within the constitutional limits set by the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit,” Jackson wrote.

Spell also is fighting state charges for the violations of pandemic-related gathering limits.

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