‘I want the people of God to enjoy liberty’: Pastor at Maine super-spreader wedding gives defiant indoor sermon

Pastor Todd Bell of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford officiated at a wedding that has been linked to Maine's largest coronavirus outbreak. Tammy Wells/Associated Press

The officiant of a now-infamous wedding in Millinocket gave a defiant sermon during an indoor church service on Sunday, just a day after Maine’s CDC announced it was investigating a coronavirus outbreak among those affiliated with the Sanford church.

Todd Bell, the pastor, portrayed Calvary Baptist Church, which he leads, as being on the front lines of a culture war, battling against a “socialistic platform” that mandates mask-wearing and distance learning in schools.

“I’ll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do,” Bell said during one of two Sunday services, which the church posted on YouTube. “They want us to shut down, go home, and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.”

Bell’s comments echoed some of the political talking points that President Trump and others on the right have used to decry coronavirus restrictions. At a rally in New Hampshire on Friday night, for example, Trump lamented that Democrats “don’t believe law-abiding citizens can go to a church together. You can’t go to church anymore.”

The Aug. 7 wedding at which Bell officiated in East Millinocket has been linked to 123 coronavirus cases in Maine, the largest outbreak in the state, as well as to the death of Theresa Dentremont, an 83-year-old woman who did not attend the event. Many of the participants in the wedding, including the bride and groom, went silent as the fallout grew, switching their social media accounts to private.

But Bell’s sermon on Sunday, at his church 225 miles south of the scene of the wedding, was fiery and unrepentant, indicating just how politicized the coronavirus has become, even in communities that have been affected by it. At times, he seemed to delight in provocation, saying that he hoped media outlets would watch the service. He did not respond to a request from the Globe for comment.

Churches have been political battlegrounds during the coronavirus, as well as occasional hot spots, with more than 650 cases linked to houses of worship and religious events since the pandemic began, according to a New York Times database in early July.

On Sunday morning, a 15-person choir assembled onstage at Calvary Baptist, maskless, and sang hymns.

The state of Maine says “cloth face coverings must be worn by all attendees when physical distancing is difficult to maintain” at worship services and also that “choirs are strongly discouraged.” When asked by the Globe whether the Sanford church was violating state rules, the Maine CDC said only that there was an ongoing investigation into the outbreak.

Gib Parrish, an epidemiologist in Maine, said that, based on what the Globe described of the service, the Sunday gathering appeared to increase the risk of participants contracting the coronavirus.

“If there are people who are likely to be positive in that group, then having an extended period of time together — particularly if they’re close by, [and] they’re not doing anything in terms of physical distancing or wearing masks, if they’re singing or shouting or talking loudly — those are activities that are known to facilitate transmission of the virus,” Parrish said.

Bell said in the sermon that the church was discouraging people from coming if they were sick and advising them to quarantine at home.

The pastor also warned his congregants that a vaccine against the coronavirus would include “aborted baby tissue,” an issue that some religious and antiabortion groups have seized upon in recent months. A number of vaccines, including those against rubella, chickenpox, and shingles, were manufactured using fetal cells from elective abortions decades ago, but the cell lines that continue to grow the vaccines are now generations removed from fetal cells. In April, a group including committee chairmen from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the Food and Drug Administration not to develop a coronavirus vaccine using cell lines that originated from fetal cells.

Bell said that instead of trusting a vaccine, he would put his faith in God, “the one that has the power to remove pestilences.”

The CDC said on Saturday there were at least five confirmed cases involving people who attended the church, and that anyone who had attended services or vacation Bible school at Calvary was potentially exposed. Bell said on Sunday that all five people who had tested positive were out of quarantine and doing “fairly well.”

“I officiated the wedding. It was a beautiful wedding,” Bell told his congregation. “Six families from our church went there. We never expected to get COVID. Nobody expected to experience the things that happened because you went to a beautiful wedding like that.”

He situated his and the church’s response firmly on political ground, saying that he had told Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, during a Zoom call on Friday that he was a “liberty lover.”

“I want the people of God to enjoy liberty,” Bell told the congregation. “If they want to wear a mask, wear a mask . . . If you want to have the liberty to have done your own research — that masks are kind of like trying to keep a mosquito out of a chain-link fence . . . if that’s what they choose, I’m a liberty lover.”

(There’s a growing body of evidence that masks are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.)

It’s not surprising that political affiliations have become connected to coronavirus behaviors, said Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University.

“Epidemics are particularly political, because unlike other kinds of health experiences in society, everyone is aware of them. By nature, they’re public events. They’re often happening very quickly and creating a lot of anxieties that bring a lot of other social, political, and economic anxieties to the surface,” Lincoln said.

Bell, in the videotaped sermon posted on YouTube, said he had received negative pushback for officiating at the wedding and used a story of hostile comments on social media to riff on Matthew 5:11-12: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”

“Men have reviled me,” the pastor told his congregation. Bell described someone on social media who had seen that he was flying to Oxford, Maine — he is a pilot — and commented that he was probably going to spread COVID at the casino there.

“Be a good place to spread it,” Bell said. A congregant cheered in the background.

“Gambling has killed more people and ruined more homes and destroyed more things in our society almost than liquor or pot or pornography,” Bell went on. “Gambling is wicked.”

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