Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, leader of Revival International Ministries and The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, Florida, was arrested Monday for what officials say was the violation of a "safer-at-home" order, which prohibits large worship services during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said that when he saw images from a crowded Sunday service at the church posted online, he was furious.
“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.”
Hillsborough County issued a "safer-at-home" order effective March 27, 10 News reported. The order mandates non-essential businesses to abide by the CDC’s social distancing guidelines that requires individuals to be separated by six feet of space. If they are unable to do that they have to shut down.
Howard-Browne argued that that his church is an essential business, and that the order violates his First Amendment rights.
Worshipers at Howard-Browne’s church on Sunday who were recorded on video did not obey the guidelines.
Chronister noted that Howard-Browne’s church has the technological resources to simply resort to online worship temporarily and abide by the order but the church instead chose to endanger congregants.
“The River Tampa Bay Church has an advantage over most places of worship,” said Chronister, “as they have access to technology allowing them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast television for more than their 4,000 members to watch from the safety from their own homes. Instead, they encouraged people to come and gather at the church, even provided bus transportation for the services."
The pastor’s arrest order shows that he 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, the Orlando Weekly noted.
"Our goal is not to stop people from worshiping," Chronister said at a press conference, "but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.
"It’s a shame that someone has taken advantage of this. For whatever reason, I just don’t understand it. The only reason I can see is it’s a reckless reason – to put your parishioners in jeopardy."
Chronister told 10 News that he hopes church members realize how serious officials are after this arrest.
“I believe there’s nothing more important than faith in a time like this. And as a sheriff’s office we would never impede someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort,” Chronister said. “But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.”
Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family, said in a release to The Christian Post Monday that it has agreed to represent Howard-Browne in the case against the county.
“As the arrest was unfolding, the Hernando County Sheriff Chad Chronister held a press conference announcing the arrest. During the press conference, State Attorney Andrew Warren quoted the Bible in Mark 12:31 (‘There is no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself’). Sherriff Chronister also invited Bishop Thomas Scott to speak, who engaged in a theological lecture about what the Bible says on this issue while disagreeing with Pastor Howard-Browne. Scott is currently running for Hillsborough County Commissioner,” Liberty Counsel said.
The religious liberty group said that while Hillsborough County issued an administrative order restricting all “public or private gatherings, including community, civic, public leisure, faith-based events, sporting events, concerts, and any similar events that bring together more than 10 people in a single room, single space, or any venue, at the same time…” on March 20, that order exempted, among other things, “shelters.” The order does not modify the word “shelters,” which is an exceptionally broad word.
When the “Safer-at-Home” administrative order was issued last Friday, the group said it highlighted 42 paragraphs of exceptions, including “religious personnel.”
In addition, the order also exempts: “Businesses which are not described in paragraph 3, and are able to maintain the required physical distancing (6 feet) may operate.”
Liberty Counsel claims during the church meeting on Sunday, Howard-Browne, among other things: enforced the six-foot distance between family groups in the auditorium as well as the overflow rooms; all the staff wore gloves; every person who entered the church received hand sanitizer; and in the farmer’s market and coffee shop in the lobby, the six-foot distance was enforced.
It was also noted that the church spent $100,000 on a hospital grade purification system set up throughout the church that provides continuous infectious microbial reduction that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the coronavirus family.
“The Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like swiss cheese. The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt or exempt if they can comply with a six-foot separation. Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said.
“The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body. Neither the Constitution nor Florida law protecting churches and the free exercise of religion disappear. This order from Hillsborough County is not narrowly tailored to achieve its underlying objective.”