Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who leads a megachurch in Tampa, Florida, was arrested Monday for refusing to cancel services in compliance with a local government directive telling people to stay at home except for essential needs. Citing religious freedom, The River at Tampa Bay Church held two services last Sunday, even busing people in to them.
“We’re living in unprecedented times right now,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, at a press conference addressing the pastor’s arrest. “So many people have lost their jobs, are under stress, and looking for some sense of calm and normalcy. I believe there is nothing more important than faith during a time like this.” Chronister said his office has no intention of disrupting the comfort people get from their religious beliefs. But, he said, “practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.”
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne Ignores Directive
On Friday, March 27, Hillsborough County issued a safer-at-home order, instructing people to stay at home if at all possible. That same day, the sheriff’s office received an anonymous tip that The River at Tampa Bay Church was planning to hold services that Sunday. Chronister’s office contacted church leaders and attorneys that Friday and that Sunday in an attempt to educate them as to why they should not hold their normal services. Howard-Browne did not make himself available to meet with members of the sheriff’s command team, but the church leaders who were present made it clear they did not intend to comply.
The church, noted Chronister, has the ability to livestream services, but nevertheless held “not one, but two large services on Sunday,” one in the morning and another in the evening.
“Because of the reckless disregard of public safety, and after repeated requests and warnings,” said Chronister, “I worked with our state attorney, Andrew Warren, to obtain a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second-degree misdemeanors.”
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Rodney Howard-Browne that Monday. According to News Channel 8, the pastor’s $500 bond was paid about 40 minutes after his arrest. Chronister reiterated that his intention is not to stop anyone from worshipping God, but rather to keep people safe. Said the sheriff, “[Howard-Browne’s] 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.”
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne’s Defense
In a press statement posted March 18 on the church’s Facebook page, The River stated that it would continue to meet because it sees itself as an essential service:
In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. 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.
The church went on to say that leaders would do all they could “to support the efforts of our wider community by cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and take any other recommended measures to protect our people and keep them healthy and safe.” The post also encouraged anyone feeling ill to remain at home.
An article on the website of Revival Ministries International, another of Howard-Browne’s ministries, claimed it is unconstitutional to deny churches the freedom to assemble, adding, “To deny a Christian his obligation to gather with his local called out body is to put him at odds with a fundamental tenet of the faith.”
In a video entitled, “End of Days: Part 3,” Howard-Browne argued that if liquor stores, abortion clinics, and businesses selling medicinal weed can be open, then churches ought to be as well. He also said people in grocery stores are not perfectly practicing social distancing by remaining six feet apart, so it is inconsistent to deny people the ability to attend church.