Federal Suit Is Ready to Move Forward

Friday the 13th of March 2020 was the day Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an emergency and began to rule by decree. One of his first acts was ordering churches to close.  At the same time, he kept the big box stores, liquor stores, and abortion clinics open.

Gov. Edwards ran into immediate opposition from Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle in Central who continued holding church services. Edwards ordered the public not to attend Life Tabernacle and sent the Commander of State Police, the State Fire Marshal, and the Sheriff to threaten the pastor.  Soon afterwards, the pastor was arrested, then fitted with an ankle monitor and placed under house arrest. 

Much happened over the next 26 months, but the pastor never flinched or missed a service.  Then on Friday the 13th of May 2022, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that everything the Governor did to Pastor Spell was illegal and unconstitutional.  That landmark case, State of Louisiana v. Pastor Tony Spell  turned the world upside down and made state and national history.

So now what? In a sense, the legal side of the pandemic is only now beginning to unfold.

When the pandemic was still going on, the courts were either closed or moving at a snail’s pace. Also, judges were reluctant to deal with the underlying constitutional issues raised by the pandemic.  They certainly knew the governor’s orders violated the U.S. Constitution and Louisiana Constitution.  But the pressure was great — even on judges — to conform and pretend that the governor had the power to do the things he said he had the power to do.  

Two years ago, Pastor Tony Spell filed a suit in federal district court claiming deprivation of federal civil rights, especially the First Amendment.  He also filed a suit in state district court claiming deprivation of civil rights under the Louisiana Constitution. The governor moved to join those two suits in federal court, which Pastor Spell agreed to.  

Now that the Louisiana Supreme Court has settled the primary legal issue in the case and determined that the pastor’s constitutional rights were in fact violated, those suits are in a very favorable position to move forward.

However, much more is also going on. Pastor Spell’s attorneys are going over countless media reports that libeled the pastor or members of his congregation.  A number of libel suits against national, state, or local media outlets could be coming forward. Now there is something rather unexpected.

During the height of the media frenzy attacking Pastor Spell in March and April 2020, a large number of foreign journalists came to Baton Rouge to cover what was happening at Life Tabernacle.

Some came to report. Most came to ridicule and attack.  Some sent Pastor Spell a copy of their TV reports, magazine or newspaper articles, or online coverage.

Since the Supreme Court decision, he has been going through that media coverage.  One thing in particular caught his eye — something he didn’t see at the time.  It is a two-year-old video.  In April 2020, a French television crew came to Baton Rouge to produce a documentary on the pandemic.  They did a segment on Life Tabernacle.  Until recently no one at the church had watched it, because it was in French.

Two weeks ago, Pastor Spell turned the video over to the Central City News to analyze, and what we found was a blockbuster of a story!

The French TV crew made friends with Scott Sherwin, a bitter opponent of Life Tabernacle who lives across the street from the church. He agreed to be interviewed for the TV special.  What he told the French TV crew was truly shocking, and it answered a lot of questions that had built up over the past two years.

The interviews for the program were done in English.  Then the English language interviews were used with voice overs by the French speaking announcer.  The Central City News was able to translate the entire segment back into English.  A translation of the program’s coverage of Scott Sherwin is found on Pages 10-11 of this edition  of the Central City News.

Throughout the pandemic, but especially during the first half of 2020, Pastor Tony Spell and Sister Shaye Spell often complained that they were being subjected to intense surveillance.  They said they had undercover federal, state, and local police units watching them around the clock.  They knew they were being photographed, and they strongly believed they were being videoed at all times. They also said they had reason to believe that their phone calls were being monitored.

Pastor Spell said he had no doubt the federal government was the types of vehicles, the expensive equipment being used, and the professionalism of those invading their privacy.

Amid all the controversies swirling around during the first few months of the pandemic, Pastor Spell made time to prepare and sign a sworn affidavit documenting the surveillance he was aware of.

The French TV crew’s interview with Scott Sherwin left no doubt that Pastor Spell’s fears were well justified in virtually all respects.  In fact, it was even worse than the pastor believed.

The interview begins with Scott Sherwin and his wife, Soviet-born Natallie Vladimurovna, sitting in lawn chairs in their driveway looking across Hooper Road at Life Tabernacle.  Sherwin says nothing about his past criminal problem with Life Tabernacle.  In 2006, Sister Dorothy Spell, wife of then pastor Rev. B.A. Spell, had to call the Sheriff’s office to complain about Sherwin’s foul mouth and threats.  She said she was afraid of him.  A Sheriff’s deputy came out and told Sherwin to stay off Life Tabernacle property.

In the interview, Sherwin tells French television about his alleged fear of the Life Tabernacle congregation bringing Covid germs to local grocery markets and endangering his family.

When asked what he would like done about Life Tabernacle, he says he’d like to get a  Kalashnikov. The Kalashnikov is a Soviet-made semi-automatic rifle known in the U.S. as the AK-47. At that point, his wife interrupts him and tells him to be quiet.

Sherwin goes on to say he was approached by “the feds” who wanted to set up sophisticated computer-controlled cameras pointed at Life Tabernacle and the Spell family.

This was about the time Rev. Tony Spell began to notice two towers going up at Sherwin’s house with two expensive cameras mounted on them.

About this time, the Spells noticed other cameras suddenly appeared on Entergy poles along Blackwater Road just a few feet off church property. One pointed at their bedroom, another at the pool, still another at their front door. Other cameras targeted entrances to church. 

In the interview with French TV, Scott Sherwin shows off a large screen TV with many camera angles showing on the screen. The large screen TV appears to be tied in not only to the cameras on his house but to the cameras on Entergy poles.

In the interview, Sherwin explains that the cameras installed by the feds were powerful enough to provide facial recognition data on the members of the church and also their license plates.

On one occasion, Rev. Spell noticed a black government-type vehicle parked at the entrance to Blackwater Park. Pastor Spell approached the vehicle and tried to speak to the driver.  He knocked on the window, but the man would not answer.  Finally, the man rolled down the window, and Rev. Spell was surprised to see that the man was watching a laptop that had numerous screens that appeared to be live video of the cameras from across the street and the cameras on the Entergy poles.

The screen on the laptop looked very similar to the large TV screen in Scott Sherwin’s home in the French video.

If that is true, all of the data that was available to FBI agents and to other law enforcement was also available in real time to Scott Sherwin, who is apparently not a commissioned law enforcement officer nor is he obligated to keep any private information private.

In the interview, Scott Sherwin said the video is checked or picked up once a week.  While explaining it, he points to a screen with a Central police officer walking into Sherwin’s house.   So apparently, both the Central police and the FBI had access to the video and perhaps the facial data and license plate information.

It was also about that time that members of the Life Tabernacle congregation reported that Central police officers were going through the church parking lot taking photos of members’ license plates.

Entering the parking lot, which is church property, is very different from taking photos from a home with permission. Taking pictures from a home is also very different from setting up a surveillance system surrounding a church.

Collecting facial data and license plate information of church members raises a number of legal issues.  In the famous 1958 case of NAACP v. Alabama, the State of Alabama was trying to keep the NAACP out of Alabama. One of the things Alabama did was to try to gather the membership list of the NAACP, with the obvious intent of harrassing the members. A unanimous Supreme Court declared that unconstitutional. Yet, it appears that is exactly what law enforcement was doing in this case — acquiring a list of members. 

It is clear that the Central police were working closely with Scott Sherwin.  They were observed and photographed going to his house for long periods of time, day and night, for months on end.

Many questions remain unanswered.

•Who specifically authorized the surveillance of Life Tabernacle?

•Who had access to that data and who has it now?

•Was that information used to intimidate anyone and keep them from exercising their constitutional right to attend church?

•Was this information given to employers to get them to fire employees 

•Did anyone seek a warrant based on probable cause?

•If so, what was the basis for the warrant, since Pastor Spell and the congregation were never alleged to have committed any federal crimes?

The interview of Scott Sherwin by French TV went unnoticed for the past two years.  It’s revelation now opens a new chapter in the story of the deprivation of civil rights of Pastor Spell and his congregation.

Everything done to Rev. Spell and the congregation has to be viewed in the context of the Supreme Court decision that they did nothing wrong. They were simplyexercising their First Amendment rights under the constitution. It was the governor and some law enforcement who were the lawbreakers.  The Louisiana Supreme Court has already ruled that everything done to Pastor Spell and the church by the governor’s orders was illegal and unconstitutional.  

So this story is far from over.

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