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Florida Pastor First to Be Arrested for Defying Coronavirus Order

Misdemeanor charges against Rodney Howard-Browne set up legal battle over right to worship in a pandemic.
Florida Pastor First to Be Arrested for Defying Coronavirus Order
Image: Chris O'Meara / AP

Florida officials have arrested a megachurch pastor who allegedly held two Sunday services with hundreds of people in violation of a safer-at-home order in place to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities in Hernando County where he lives on Monday afternoon, according to jail records. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. The two misdemeanors carry a possible maximum sentence of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said his command staff met with leaders of The River at Tampa Bay Church about the danger they are putting themselves—and their congregation—in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing. The sheriff's office also placed a digital sign on the road near the church driveway that said “practice social distancing.” But Howard-Browne held the services anyway, according to detectives.

“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.”

Several churches across the country have boldly violated gathering restrictions and stay-at-home orders to continue in-person worship, but Howard-Browne at The River is the first to face punishment for doing so.

Recent research shows 1 in 10 Americans say their house of worship is continuing to gather in person, according to data reported last weekend by Deseret News.

The church has said it sanitized the building, and the pastor said on Twitter that the church is an essential business. Howard-Browne defended the church’s right to gather for worship and attacked the media for “religious bigotry and hate.”

Howard-Browne is a controversial Charismatic preacher associated with the prosperity gospel and known for promoting uncontrolled laughter—called “holy laughter”—as a manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. He is originally from South Africa, and is a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump.

Howard-Browne has also preached a number of conspiracy theories, claiming without evidence that the CIA trains ISIS fighters in the United States, and that vaccines are part of a secret plot to sterilize people, and that there was a secret assassination attempt on President Trump. He has also promoted wild theories about forces controlling the coronavirus.

Emergency rules instituted by county and state government ban all meetings of 10 or more people, including those held by faith-based groups. Health officials say this will help limit the spread of COVID-19. A live stream of Sunday's three-and-a-half-hour church service showed scores of congregants at The River.

On March 18, 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.”

“This is really about your voice. The voice of the body of Christ,” he said. As recently as last year, Howard-Browne's church hosted an event with Paula White Cain, who was named an advisor leading President Donald Trump's Faith and Opportunity Initiative. She's also an unofficial spiritual advisor to the president.

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