Days after he was arrested for leading two large worship services amid the coronavirus pandemic, Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne said he's decided to shutter his church even though Gov. Ron DeSantis declared Wednesday that attending church is an essential activity.
Police arrested Howard-Browne at his home Monday for allegedly violating public health emergency rules amid the coronavirus pandemic. Following international media attention surrounding the church and the governor's decision to recognize religious services as essential activities, Hillsborough County Council voted Thursday to reverse its previous stay-at-home order to recognize churches as essential. The council also voted against imposing a 10 person limit and 6-foot social distancing restriction on churches.
Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, Florida, was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules — both second degree misdemeanors — for hosting church services with hundreds of members in attendance following a stay-at-home order issued by DeSantis for South Florida, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said.
Liberty Counsel, the religious liberty nonprofit law firm representing Howard-Browne, said that on March 20, 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…'
However, Liberty Counsel added that "on March 27, Hillsborough County issued a 'Safer-at-Home' administrative order that contains 42 paragraphs of exceptions, including 'religious personnel.'" They added that it also exempted places that are able to maintain physical distancing of 6 feet, which the church abided by.
The law firm said that in addition to following the 6-foot distancing rule with designated floor makers, all staff wore gloves, everyone who entered the church received hand sanitizer, and the church also installed a $100,000 hospital grade purification system.
Liberty Counsel said in a statement released Thursday that: "Sheriff Chad Chronister made many false statements this week about The River at Tampa Bay Church and Pastor Howard-Browne. Those statements must be retracted. His statements also placed Pastor Howard-Browne and the church in physical harm. Pastor Howard-Browne has received abusive words and death threats since Sheriff Chronister’s press conference on Monday and his media circuit. Liberty Counsel is calling upon the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office to provide protection to the church."
In a Facebook Live broadcast late Wednesday night to members of The River at Tampa Bay Church and the public, Howard-Browne said: “No one’s expecting me to make this announcement but I actually have no choice. What people don’t know is from Monday I actually shut the whole church down. I shut the ministry down. And so we probably had no more than nine people there at any time, just with the essential services from the food ministry. ... So there’s been nothing there the whole week."
“For purposes of this Order and the conduct it limits, ‘essential activities’ means and encompasses the following: attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship; participating in recreational activities (consistent with social distancing guidelines) such as walking, biking, hiking, fishing, hunting, running, or swimming; and taking care of pets; and caring for or otherwise assisting a loved one or friend,” the order explains.
Howard-Browne, who launched a legal fight against his charges with help from the Liberty Counsel, said he's decided to keep his church closed to protect his congregants from a “tyrannical government.”
“There will be no service at The River this Sunday. Now I know some people say ‘he’s caving.’ No. And let me tell you why I have to do this. I have to do this to protect the congregation, not from the virus but from a tyrannical government because all the charges against me are totally bogus. Now, I’m not going to get into the case or whatever. I’ve forgiven the sheriff and that’s it,” he said.
He further noted that he is keeping his church closed because the media has “blown it out of proportion,” leading to threats to his members and other staff.
“The big thing is, I don’t want to have a service and they come raid the church,” he said. He also noted that he was wary of “crazy” infected people who may try to enter his church and expose his congregants to the virus.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement that The River at Tampa Bay Church "is essential to the community" in part because it "feeds 900 families each week and goes to certain places of the inner city where law enforcement does not go."
"The Hillsborough County order was unconstitutional. The county knew the lawsuit was coming this week and knew they would not win. We are also pleased that every church in Florida is now free to worship. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne brought worldwide attention to an unconstitutional order and arrest," Staver said.
“Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding 6-foot distancing, it went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people. Contrary to Sheriff Chronister’s allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was ‘reckless,' the actions of Hillsborough County and the Hernando County Sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings,” Staver added.
The decision by DeSantis to classify attending church an essential service came as an outspoken minority of pastors across the country, with Howard-Browne as the most high-profile face, began resisting calls from federal, state and local government authorities to close their churches despite facing fines and arrest.
State lawmakers in Texas also made a similar move as DeSantis in making church worship and ministry an essential service. But many churches say they will continue pursuing alternative forms of worship amid the pandemic.
Pastor Steve Wells of South Main Baptist Church in Houston told Click2Houston that his congregation is following the Harris County Stay Home, Work Safe order by continuing services online.
“We plan to continue doing that so long as the county judge recommends doing so," Well said. "Our current plan is to do that through April 30.”
Texas pastors Dwight McKissic, Robert Jeffress and Jared Wellman also told Baptist Press they planned to continue following recommended safety protocols.
Vice President Mike Pence who leads the White House Coronavirus Task Force also urged Americans to avoid church services of more than 10 people.
"We're so grateful to churches and synagogues and places of worship around America that have heeded the president's coronavirus guidelines for America," Pence told ABC News's "Nightline."
"We really believe this is a time when people should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people," he continued. "And so we continue to urge churches around America to heed to that."
An earlier version of this article did not include information about Hillsborough County Council's vote to reverse its order and recognize churches as “essential.” It also did not list the ways the church complied with 6-foot social distancing and other safety precautions the church implemented.