The Florida State Attorney’s Office has dismissed charges against controversial megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for allegedly violating a "safer-at-home" order in March, which prohibited large worship services during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Having reviewed the charge(s) contained in the Criminal Report Affidavit and/or Notice to Appear, the State Attorney’s Office informs you that the charge(s) contained therein is/are dismissed and prosecution is terminated as of this date and that the defendant need not appear for any further proceedings in this matter,” State Attorney Andrew H. Warren said in a Notice of Termination of Prosecution shared by Howard-Browne’s defense lawyers, the Liberty Counsel, on Friday.
Howard Browne, who leads Revival International Ministries and The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, Florida, was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, which are both second-degree misdemeanors, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a maximum fine of $500.
At the time of Howard-Browne’s arrest, ordered by Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, a "safer-at-home" order was in effect mandating nonessential businesses to abide by the CDC’s social distancing guidelines that required individuals to be separated by six feet of space. If they are unable to do that, they had to shut down.
Chronister said at a press conference about the arrest that he was furious when he saw images online of packed services at Howard-Browne’s church.
“We received an anonymous tip that Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne refused a request to temporarily stop holding large gatherings at his church,” he said. “And instead, he was encouraging his large congregation to meet at his church.”
In a statement Friday, Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver argued that the pastor’s arrest was politically motivated.
“The arrest of Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne was politically motivated. Neither the pastor nor The River at Tampa Bay Church did anything wrong. The arrest and the press conference were outrageous and caught the attention of the nation and the world. As a result of this arrest, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared attendance at churches, synagogues, and houses of worship to be an essential activity. This arrest freed up every church in Florida to meet. We are pleased that all the charges have been dropped. It is now time to move forward with healing and restoration,” Staver said.
Howard-Browne and Chronister were already on the path to mending fences after the fiasco.
The pastor announced in a post on Facebook on April 29 that he met with the sheriff at his home and discussed plans to reopen the county and that he was looking forward to hosting Chronister at his church as soon as it reopens.
“Breaking News: So honored to meet with Sheriff Chad Chronister today! He came to our house and met with @adonicashowardbrowne and I. We had a great lunch together. We discussed the way forward in the opening up of Hillsborough County and the role of the @rivertampabay River Church in cooperation with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s department. It’s time to get our County back to normalcy - thank you Sheriff Chronister,” Howard-Browne said.