Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, Florida megachurch pastor at The River at Tampa Bay Church arrested for defying public health order in face of coronavirus epidemic.
Is God an essential service?
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities on Monday afternoon and was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order.
His bail was set at $500 and he was released after posting bond the Tampa Bay reports.
The priest’s arrest came after hundreds of worshippers attended a service on Sunday at The River at Tampa Bay Church after the conservative evangelical pastor vowed never to close despite the deadly pandemic.
The service came on the same day President Donald Trump extended lockdown measures across the United States as he urged Americans to stay home until the end of April to slow the spread of the deadly virus.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has also put in place an executive order that limits faith-based gatherings to 10 people or less.
Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested after holding services Sunday at his Tampa megachurch despite public orders urging residents to stay home to help contain the spread of coronavirus https://t.co/r0Du5vBarr pic.twitter.com/PqkPkNi8aa
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) March 30, 2020
Is church non-essential?
A livestream of the service (see video below) at The River at Tampa Bay Church on Sunday showed hundreds of members crowding into the church.
Some churchgoers made an effort to separate their chairs from their fellow worshippers but the majority were not six feet apart as government guidelines recommend.
At one point during the service, dozens of worshippers stood shoulder-to-shoulder and some even embraced, as they sang together at the front of the church.
Pastor Howard-Browne walked through the crowded church at various points during his sermon.
‘They are trying to beat me up, you know, over having the church operational but we are not non-essential,’ he could be heard telling the congregation.
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a news conference Monday that he negotiated with the pastor’s attorney to turn himself in to authorities.
Chronister said his command staff met with The River at Tampa Bay Church leaders about the danger they are putting themselves – and their congregation – in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing but Howard-Browne still held the services.
Sheriff’s deputies had even placed a digital sign on the road near the church driveway that said ‘practice social distancing’ as a deterrent — but to no avail.
‘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 wakeup call.’
Cognitive dissonance in the church?
The pastor – who first came to the US from South Africa as a missionary in 1987 – publicly defended his decision to keep the church open, saying they had put measures in place to disinfect the space.
‘We brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place and if somebody walks through the door it’s like, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze, it shoots it down at like 100mph,’ he said in a video on his YouTube channel.
‘It’ll neutralize it in split seconds. We have the most sterile building in, I don’t know, all of America.’
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne held a church service this morning and said God would multiply your toilet paper rolls if you had enough faith.
— Hemant Mehta (@hemantmehta) March 29, 2020
Facts vs faith:
Howard-Browne isn’t alone in refusing to curtail in-person worship services despite public health orders designed to stop the virus from spreading.
Some churches in hard-hit Louisiana and Ohio also remained open for worshippers this past weekend the dailymail reports.
The Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana held its regular service on Sunday with preacher Tony Spell hugging members of the congregation.
More than 1,000 people attended the service where seven people were baptized.
‘We’re free people. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re not going to cower,’ he said, according to the LA Times. ‘We’re not breaking any laws.
The Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio also held its regular service with dozens of cars spotted in the church’s parking lot.
Local health officials have already urged the church to cease services after receiving complaints from residents concerned about the lack of social distancing.
‘As Christians we are charged by Jesus Christ to obey the laws of our land. Therefore, if the laws of our nation should ever change with respect to our First Amendment right to assemble, thereby restricting us from having our church doors open, we will willing comply,’ the church said in a statement.
‘If there has ever been a time in the history of our world when we all need God’s help, it is now. For that reason, we believe that the doors of Solid Rock Church should remain open.’
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned over the weekend that up to 200,000 Americans could die and millions become infected if lockdowns and social distancing did not continue.
There are currently 5704 confirmed coronavirus cases across Florida and 71 deaths. Overall, 164, 248 cases of infection have been diagnosed in the US, the greatest number of any nation in the world with a reported 3164 deaths as of Monday night. The above numbers were expected to continue rising exponentially as the US is roughly two-four weeks from flattening out in anticipated rates of contractions.
‘This church will never close,’
Meanwhile, Pastor Howard-Browne and his Florida-based church have also previously said they will not close down despite the virus continuing to spread because they believe they’re an essential service.
‘This church will never close,’ he said during a service two weeks ago. ‘The only time the church will close is when the Rapture is taking place.
He said that his sermons and the Bible school would still go on because his congregants aren’t ‘pansies’.
Pastor Howard-Browne had even previously urged his congregants to shake hands despite the government advising people to avoid contact with others.
‘Well I know they don’t want us to do this, but just turn around and greet two, three people,’ he said at a previous service. ‘Tell them you love them, Jesus loves them.
‘Listen, this has to be the safest place. If you cannot be saved in church, you in serious trouble.’
In a statement on the church’s website, they compared their services to the hospitals and law enforcement during the pandemic.
‘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,’ they said.
‘The church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty. Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time.
‘The River at Tampa Bay is doing, and will do, everything in our power 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.
‘If anyone is either not feeling well or would prefer to take the precaution of remaining at home for their own health, we encourage them to do that and to continue to watch the services online.’
Prior to the escalation of coronavirus cases in the United States, Pastor Howard-Browne vowed to stop the disease from spreading like he did with the Zika virus.
He claimed he would stop the virus by cursing it from Florida in the name of Jesus.
‘We are doing the same thing with the coronavirus,’ he said in February 24 online video.
‘We do not need it on these shores, and somebody said ‘Well, what about the rest of the world?’
‘I mean, I can’t be responsible for every city, or whatever.’
Of note, the pastor was among those invited to pray with President Trump at the White House in 2017.