The pastor of a Tampa church who hosted two large Sunday services, even busing people in, has been arrested after the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office issued a warrant for his arrest.
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River Church violated Hillsborough County's safer-at-home order, which went into effect March 27, said Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.
"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk, and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger," Chronister said.
Howard-Browne was arrested on a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors. Hillsborough authorities confirmed his arrest via email, saying he was taken into custody at his home in Hernando County around 1:30 p.m. Monday.
He bonded out for $500.
The River Church held a three-hour service, filled with music by the church band and a sermon by Howard-Browne. The county has banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
In a Facebook video, Howard-Browne said worship services are protected by the First Amendment. It's also exempt from the county order, he said.
"We are not a non-essential service. We are vital to any community, to health and the well-being,” he said. “And the very thought that if people come to church, you're going to kill them, that's garbage."
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But the service caught the attention of Chronister, who issued a statement that admonished the church for failing to comply with the order.
“The River Church has an advantage over most places of worship, as they have access the technology, allowing them to livestream their services over the internet and broadcast television for more than their 4,000 members to watch from the safety of their own homes,” Chronister said. “Instead, they encouraged people to come and gather at church, even provided bus transportation.”
Chronister said he does not want to stop anyone from worshipping, but the safety and well-being of the community comes first. The pastor ignored several warnings and refused to meet personally with sheriff's office officials, Chronister said.
"Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this church for forcing us to do our job," Chronister said. "That's not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency. We are hopeful that this will be a wake-up call for him, his legal staff and his entire leadership at the church. We're also hoping that the congregation realizes the importance of reducing the spread of this virus and stays at home."
During a news conference Monday afternoon, Bishop Thomas Scott of Tampa's 34th Street Church of God, said faith leaders need to understand the importance of social distancing.
“It is important also for the religious community to govern themselves, according to the laws of the land, Scott said. “The Bible instructs us to obey the laws of the land.”
Liberty Counsel is representing Howard-Browne, saying that "this religious gathering was targeted" and that Sheriff Chronister is openly discriminating against church gatherings.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver in a news release said:
“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. 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.”
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