The Sanford pastor from a now-infamous wedding in East Millinocket continued his defiant stance toward pandemic precautions this weekend and held in-person services on Sunday. He also engaged a high-profile lawyer to defend his congregation’s religious liberty.

Todd Bell, who officiated at the Aug. 7 wedding whose crowded reception in nearby Millinocket has been linked to more than a hundred cases of COVID-19, preached again to an in-person congregation at Calvary Baptist Church on Sunday, according to a live internet audio stream of services.

In a screen shot from a YouTube video of a service on Aug. 30 at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Pastor Todd Bell talks to his congregation.

It was not clear how many people were in attendance and whether the church was respecting the state’s 50-person limit on indoor gatherings, because no video was available. But a church official could be heard directing those in attendance to greet their neighbors in the congregation.

Calvary Baptist itself has found 10 cases of COVID-19 among its congregation, even as Bell has continued to hold in-person services without masks or social distancing, according to videos the church posted online and has since taken down.

Bell’s stance has divided the Sanford community, prompting some organizations to suspend collaboration with the church’s outreach work. The pastor addressed the controversy in his Sunday sermon and a Friday radio address, urging his followers to ignore detractors and follow his interpretation of the Bible.

Speaking in the radio address on Friday, Bell said he had engaged a nationally known lawyer, David Gibbs III of the National Center for Life and Liberty, to defend the church’s religious rights. The NCLL describes itself as “a legal ministry that protects the rights of churches and Christian organizations nationwide.”


Gibbs confirmed that he was working with Calvary Baptist Church in an email Sunday, but he did not respond to questions about whether he was formally representing the church and what legal issues he might address.

Bell did not spell out those details in his radio address, either.

Gibbs represented the parents of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman at the center of a nationwide controversy over whether she should be kept alive indefinitely in a vegetative state, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent the removal of her feeding tube.

After Schiavo sustained severe brain damage from cardiac arrest in 1990, her husband, Michael, advocated giving her what he said was death with dignity. Schiavo’s parents and siblings fought to keep her alive, and religious figures and organizations, as well as the Vatican, weighed in against what they saw as unacceptable euthanasia. After a long legal struggle, Terri Schiavo died in March 2005, 13 days after the tube’s removal.

Gibbs created the NCLL in 2012, partly because of a desire to build institutional support for religious legal advocacy after the Schiavo case, according to the group’s website. He now serves as president and general counsel of the organization, which listed more than $1 million in revenue from grants, gifts and membership fees in each of the years 2013, 2014 and 2017, and close to that number in 2015 and 2016, according to tax filings.

Gibbs is the only employee of the organization who works more than one hour a week, according to tax filings, which do not identify the group’s major donors. The NCLL paid Gibbs $493,380 in legal fees in 2017, the filings say.


In a post on the NCLL’s website, Gibbs recommends that churches follow state and local regulations calling for masks to be worn during services, or at least on the way into services. Courts are likely to uphold governors’ pandemic-era orders that mandate masks and limit social gatherings, he said in his legal analysis.

Some churches in Maine and around the country have pushed back against COVID-19 restrictions. In May, Calvary Chapel in Orrington sued to lift Gov. Janet Mills’ prohibition of in-person religious services. A federal judge sided with Mills, saying the state responded to the pandemic “by establishing uniform standards and restrictions based on evolving scientific evidence.” That executive order has since been relaxed due to improved infection statistics and an increased readiness to combat the virus in Maine.

Churches in other states also have filed lawsuits challenging restrictions as violations of religious liberty. Grace Community Church in Los Angeles has been holding services for weeks in defiance of state and local limits on indoor gatherings, The Associated Press reported last month.

Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said last week that the state has authority under the current emergency order to protect public health, including where religious services are concerned.

“We have those enforcement tools and, if needed, will use them,” she said, without specifying what those tools are.

On Sunday, the live internet stream of services at Calvary Baptist indicated that in-person attendance took place again; an assistant to Bell at one point encouraged those in attendance to greet their neighbors, and parishioners could be heard conversing on the recording.


Videos of Sunday services on Aug. 30 and the preceding Wednesday showed members of the church standing close together and singing without masks, contrary to the recommendations of public health officials.

Mills’ executive order on coronavirus prevention limits indoor gatherings to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100 people, and requires that people keep physical distance at such gatherings. The Maine CDC also warns that “projection of respiratory particles is increased during singing, yelling, dancing, sports, and games,” which increases transmission risk “particularly in crowded areas and indoor settings.”

On Sunday, Bell said the church had continued to hold full-time classes through its affiliate youth academy. At an orientation event for the school this past Thursday, God sent a “perfect rainbow” to confirm the decision, he said.

Much of the pastor’s remarks on Sunday focused on how church members should ignore criticism from outsiders, who he said had told him to “go back to North Carolina,” where he lived before coming to Maine in 1996.

“People think I’m a weirdo,” he said in his sermon. “They really do, and I’m glad I’m among friends here today.”

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