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Charges Dropped Against Pastor Arrested For Violating Safer-At-Home Orders

A large crowd gathers inside a church and doesn't follow social distancing rules. The pastor's mugshot is in the upper right corner.
Charges were dropped against Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, inset, who was arrested after authorities say The River Church of Tampa held in-person worship services despite warnings from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Charges have been dropped against a pastor who was arrested after holding a church service in late March that violated Hillsborough County's safer-at-home order.

Local authorities are still standing behind the March 30 arrest of Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay Church.

Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors.

RELATED: Tampa Pastor Arrested After Church Hosts In-Person Worship

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister says compliance - not punishment - is the focus of emergency health laws.

"Law enforcement's intervention through arrest has been rare during this health crisis, and while it remains a necessary tool to protect the health and safety of our community, we agree that further criminal sanctions are not necessary in this instance," Chronister said in a press release Friday.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said since the arrest, Howard-Browne has maintained responsible social distancing on his church campus.

“Hillsborough County’s emergency order treats violations of social distancing as a problem to solve, much more than a person to punish. Pastor Howard-Browne’s arrest accomplished the safer-at-home order’s goal, which is compliance with the law,” Warren said.   

Liberty Counsel, which represents the pastor, claims the arrest was politically motivated and applauded Gov. Ron DeSantis for declaring attendance at churches, synagogues, and houses of worship to be an essential activity.

“The arrest and the press conference were outrageous and caught the attention of the nation and the world,” Liberty Counsel said in a news release.

“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.”

Shortly before the arrest, Chronister shamed Howard-Browne for putting the congregation in danger after people were asked to meet in no more than groups of ten, saying that the church has the technology to allow them to livestream their services over the internet and broadcast television for their more than 4,000 members to watch from the safety of their own homes.

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