Florida officials have arrested the pastor of a megachurch accused of holding two Sunday services with hundreds of people and violating a safer-at-home order in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Jail records show Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities on Monday afternoon in Hernando County, where he lives. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. Bail was set at $500, according to the records, and he was released after posting bond.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said his command staff met leaders of the River at Tampa Bay church about the danger they were putting themselves – and their congregation – in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing, but Howard-Browne held the services. The sheriff’s office also placed a digital sign on the road near the church driveway that said “practice social distancing”.

“Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this staff for forcing us to do our job. That’s not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency,” Chronister said. “We are hopeful that this will be a wake-up call.”

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church.



Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church. Photograph: Reuters

Howard-Browne’s law firm, Liberty Counsel, in turn criticised authorities, saying in a statement: “Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding six-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.”

Howard-Browne is not alone in refusing to curtail in-person worship services despite public health orders designed to stop the virus from spreading. Churches in Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana have continued to invite worshippers in recent days because at least half a dozen states offer some degree of exemption for faith in their orders to shutter non-essential activity during the pandemic.

The Tampa church said it sanitised the building, and the pastor said on Twitter the church was an essential business. He also attacked the media for “religious bigotry and hate”. In the statement released on Monday afternoon, Liberty Counsel said the church enforced the six-foot distance rule between family groups, made sure staff wore gloves and gave every person who entered hand sanitiser, among other things.

The county and governor’s orders require gatherings, including those held by faith-based groups, to be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of Covid-19. A livestream of Sunday’s three-and-a-half-hour service showed scores of congregants. In a Facebook post, Howard-Browne said coronavirus “is blown totally way out of proportion”.

On 18 March, the church called its ministry an essential service, just like police and firefighters, and said it would keep its doors open.

In a Facebook video Sunday, Howard-Browne said: “It looks like we’re going to have to go to court over this because the church is encroached from every side.”



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