TAMPA, Fla. - The pastor of a Tampa megachurch is facing charges after refusing to close its doors despite a "safer at home" order in effect in Hillsborough County, meant to stop the spread of COVID-19. The sheriff says up to 500 people were in attendance at Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne's Sunday services.
Sheriff Chad Chronister and State Attorney Andrew Warren on Monday announced that an arrest warrant had been issued for Pastor Howard-Browne. He faces misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency order.
The River at Tampa Bay Church held two services Sunday, Chronister said, and even offered bus transportation for those services. The chuch's livestream showed a packed crowd cheering and applauding.
"They have access to technology allowing them to livestream their services over the internet and broadcast to their 400 members from the safety of their own homes, but instead they chose to gather at church," Chronister said during a press conference.
Howard-Browne, 58, was taken into custody Monday afternoon in Hernando County, where he lives, and released 40 minutes later after posting a $500 bond.
His attorney later took issue with the Hillsborough County order, claiming it allows companies like Amazon to operate while shutting down churches.
“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," insisted Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver. "Contrary to Sheriff Chronister’s allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was ‘reckless,'” the actions of Hillsborough Country and the Hernando County Sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings.”
Previously, Sheriff Chronister said, deputies had tried to speak to Howard-Browne on at least two separate occasions about the "dangerous environment" the church was creating. He said HCSO command staff went to the east Tampa church, but they were advised by church leaders and legal staff that Howard-Browne was refusing to see them and also refusing to cancel the Sunday church services.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the pastor here is hiding behind the First Amendment," State Attorney Warren offered. "One, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid. Second of all, leaders from our faith-based community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing.”
On Sunday, Howard-Browne defended his decision to keep the church open in a video posted to his YouTube channel, claiming the building had the technology to eradicate any virus.
"We brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place," Howard-Browne said. "If they sneeze it shoots it down like at 100 miles per hour and it will neutralize it in a split second."
The church provided the following statement on their website:
"We feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community."
Chronister stressed that the warrant was not an attack on religious freedom, and noted there are other Tampa Bay-area churches who are following the social distancing guidelines set by the CDC. He said his concern now is whether the novel coronavirus may spread following the crowded services.
"I was appalled and also frightened at the fact that those individuals [were] thinking and believing they are doing the right thing. How many people are they going to infect if they have COVID-19?" he asked. "There is nothing more important than faith especially during a pandemic, but like every other church here in the Bay Area, do it responsibly."
During his announcement of the arrest warrant, other leaders from local churches also joined him. Pastor Ken Whitten from Idlewild Baptist Church pointed out that quarantining is mentioned in the Bible.
"It was practiced by people," he said. "The issue here is not religious freedom. Churches are not the ones being singled out. Everything is shut down. There is no basketball. There is no hockey. All of us our doing our part. I'm a pastor that believes God heals…this is not a faith issue. This is a responsible friend issue."