RIVERVIEW, FL — A Florida pastor has been arrested after being accused of hosting two packed church services Sunday in violation of executive orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, encouraged members of his congregation to attend two 3 1/2-hour-long services Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m., despite the state and county prohibition against gatherings of more than 10 people, authorities said.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said his office received a tip Friday and contacted Howard-Browne to warn him against hosting services at the nondenominational mega church, which has more than 4,000 members.
“My command staff even went out there to speak to the pastor, who did not make himself available,” Chronister said.
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He said Howard-Browne not only went against the sheriff’s warnings against hosting the services, he also provided buses to transport members to the church, authorities said.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk,” Chronister said. “Shame on this pastor, his legal staff and leaders of church for forcing us to do our job. We’re hoping this will be a wake-up call for congregations to stay at home and don’t get in a bus filled with people to go to a service.”
Chronister contacted Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren after watching a video of the Sunday services posted on the church’s Facebook page.
“I was appalled and frightened at the fact that those individuals were thinking they’re doing the right thing,” he said. “How many of those people are going to spread COVID-19 back into the community? I hold the pastor responsible. The flock will follow him. In these dire times, it’s a shame someone has taken advantage of this.”
He noted that the church has the technical equipment available to livestream its services to the homes of its congregation members, just as other churches around the country are doing to conform to the national health emergency rules.
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Howard-Browne was already in the public eye after video from a previous service showed him urging church members to hug one another. “We’re raising up revivalists, not pansies,” he thundered, telling the worshippers that U.S. health officials “don’t want us to do this, but greet two, three people. Tell them you love them, Jesus loves them.”
Video showed worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder, heeding Howard-Browne’s command as he vows the only time the church will close is “when the Rapture is taking place.”
After receiving Warren’s approval, Chronister issued an arrest warrant for Howard-Browne on two charges of unlawful assembly in violation of a public health emergency order, a misdemeanor offense.
Since Howard-Browne lives in Hernando County, the pastor arranged to turn himself into the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office on Monday. Chronister expected Browne to post bail right away to avoid jail time.
Howard-Browne did not respond to phone calls for interviews but released a statement explaining his reasons for proceeding with the church services.
“In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty,” he said. “We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients. We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty.
“Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time,” Howard-Brown continued. “In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community, more than ever before. Even people who do not attend church regularly, or perhaps never go to church, need to know that there is somewhere for them to go when they need help.”
He said the church is taking every precaution to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus including using a special air filter system and cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.
He added that attendance is completely voluntary.
“If anyone is either not feeling well or would prefer to take the precaution of remaining at home for their own health, we encourage them to do that and to continue to watch the services online,” he said.
But Warren said the state and county emergency orders clearly spell out that church is not an essential service.
“The issue is about the health and safety of our community,” Warren said. “It’s not only reckless, it’s illegal. Where people are refusing to obey law enforcement in this regard and hiding behind the First Amendment, you risk arrest. Religious leaders across the country have embraced social distancing. Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”
Two well-known Hillsborough County religious leaders were on hand to support Chronister’s actions.
Bishop Thomas Scott, a longtime Hillsborough County commissioner and pastor of 34th Street Church of God in Tampa, agreed that faith is important during these uncertain times but said there are ways to share faith without jeopardizing health.
“There is nothing more important than faith at a time like this. We would never impede on someone’s religious freedoms,” Scott said.”But it’s important for the religious community to comport themselves according to the law of the land.”
Idlewild Baptist Church pastor Ken Whitten said even the Book of Leviticus in the Bible talks about the necessity of quarantines.
“I don’t question Rodney Howard-Browne’s motive or heart,” Whitten said. “That’s not the issue. And it’s not religious freedom. Churches aren’t being singled out …. Nor is this a faith issue. I believe God heals by miracle and medicine. This is a responsible-friend issue. We’re doing this out of love for our neighbors. You can’t fulfill the Second Commandment to love your neighbor and be a vector of infection.”
As for future services, Chronister said, “Attorneys for the church are in direct contact with our sheriff’s attorneys. We are working to determine how compliance can be achieved to keep the public safe under these extraordinary conditions, and we hope to resolve this matter quickly.”