A Baton Rouge lawyer who visited Life Tabernacle Church on two occasions was hospitalized with COVID-19 on April 16.
Before he became ill, Jeff Wittenbrink, 59, was helping put together a legal defense of the church and its pastor on anticipated charges of defying Louisiana’s social-distancing order and its ban on large gatherings.
The Rev. Tony Spell has defiantly refused to follow those mandates despite one arrest and repeated warnings. He drew a large crowd on Easter Sunday, which was captured on video.
John Bel Edwards, Louisiana’s Democratic governor, issued the state's “safer at home” orders on March 22. Similar to those in Wisconsin, the orders require social distancing and remaining at home except for essential reasons, such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have adopted such measures to reduce contagion and save lives.
But Spell believes that "true Christians do not mind dying. They fear living in fear,” according to TMZ. He's also been reported saying that devout Christians need to congregate in order to worship. Otherwise, he said, billions of dollars would not be spent on building churches.
'The bad thing is I might have spread (it) to somebody'
Wittenbrink became ill less than two weeks after attending events at the church, which is located in the city of Central, about 70 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.
Speaking with The Advocate by phone from his hospital bed, Wittenbrink declined to tie his illness to Life Tabernacle Church. He told the newspaper that he might have been infected at a number of places.
"I went to Albertson's twice a day. I went to Sam's. I went to Walmart. I went to Lowe's. I used the gas pumps. I mean I just wasn't careful. God knows where I got it. The bad thing is I might have spread (it) to somebody. I feel bad about that, " he told The Advocate.
Wittenbrink’s is not the first COVID-19 case associated with the church. Harold Orillion, 78 died April 15 from the coronavirus, according to the parish coroner. Orillion was a church regular.
Spell said the coroner’s finding was “a lie.”
Spell has spurred more controversy by telling his followers to donate their stimulus checks to evangelical churches through a new online challenge he created that uses the hashtag #PastorSpellStimulusChallenge.
“Donate it to evangelists, North American evangelists who haven’t had an offering in a month; missionaries, who haven’t had an offering in a month; music ministers, who haven’t had an offering in a month,” Spell said in a video on YouTube.
Controversy within controversy
Witternbrink had been working with notorious Alabaman Roy Moore on a legal defense strategy for Spell and the church.
Moore, a former justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, was ousted twice from the bench. The first time was in 2003, for refusing to remove a 5,200 lb. granite statue of the Ten Commandments from courthouse property. He had paid for the biblical monument’s creation and installation.
Moore was reelected in 2012, but ordered to leave the court permanently in 2016 after reportedly telling Alabama judges to defy the US Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Moore has compared homosexuality to bestiality and called it “an inherent evil against which children must be protected,” according to Time magazine.
Moore made national headlines in 2017 when he lost a US Senate race to Democrat Doug Jones. His defeat came after he was hit with multiple and credible accusations of assaulting and making unwanted sexual advances toward women when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
Jones, a prosecutor known for going after domestic terrorists such as the Ku Klux Klan, is the first Democrat whom Alabama has elected to the US Senate in 25 years.
Moore blamed LGBT people and socialists for spreading the misconduct charges, which he dismissed as lies.
Louisiana has become an epidemic hotspot. As of 2 p.m. April 17, the state reported 22,532 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,156 deaths associated with the virus, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an error. Wittenbrink is hospitalized, but he has not died.