Florida Megachurch Pastor Arrested After Defying Order Not To Hold Gatherings

Mar 30, 2020
Originally published on March 31, 2020 8:17 am

A Florida pastor learned Monday that his defiance of a county ban on gatherings of more than 10 people was not something the local sheriff was willing to tolerate.

Rodney Howard-Browne, co-founder and pastor of the River at Tampa Bay Church, held worship as usual on Sunday, even encouraging his members to attend. By the next morning, a warrant had been issued for his arrest, and a few hours later he was taken into custody.

"Our goal is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first," said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, explaining his decision to issue an arrest warrant for Howard-Browne.

"His 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," Chronister said.

Howard-Browne subsequently turned himself and was put in jail. About 40 minutes later, he was released on bail.

The pastor had repeatedly questioned the seriousness of the coronavirus threat and made clear he had no intention of suspending services at his church, which is said to have 4000 members.

Even after the sheriff's office warned him that religious worship did not qualify as an "essential" service, and that holding services could subject him to arrest, Howard-Browne encouraged members to attend and offered to provide bus transportation.

"I know that they're trying to beat me up," Howard-Browne told the several hundred worshipers who attended his church on Sunday, "but we are not a non-essential service."

The order against worship services violated "not only the right of free speech but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe," Howard-Browne claimed.

State Attorney Andrew Warren said it was "unfortunate" that Howard-Browne was claiming a First Amendment right to proceed with the worship service.

"I'd remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31, which said there's no more important commandment than to love they neighbor as thyself," Warren said. "Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health as exposing them to this deadly virus."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A megachurch pastor in Florida was arrested yesterday. His name is Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne. And he was charged with unlawful assembly for continuing to hold large worship services despite public health orders to close those gatherings down. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Howard-Browne is the co-founder and pastor of a church called The River at Tampa Bay. It's said to have 4,000 members. In recent days, he questioned the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, vowed to keep his church open until biblical end times and told his parishioners God will protect them. After local authorities issued a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, law enforcement officers visited his church to warn Howard-Browne that worship is considered a nonessential service. But the pastor refused to meet with them, and he went ahead with his services on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODNEY HOWARD-BROWNE: I know that they trying to beat me up, you know, but we are not a nonessential service.

(APPLAUSE)

GJELTEN: Speaking during the service, Howard-Browne told the hundreds who showed up not to worry because the law was on his side, specifically the First Amendment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD-BROWNE: Not only the right of free speech, but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe.

(CROSSTALK)

HOWARD-BROWNE: You know, suddenly, we are demonized because we believe that God heals.

GJELTEN: Howard-Browne repeatedly insisted that his church members could expect supernatural intervention to keep them from getting sick. But authorities in the Tampa area were determined to show the ban on gatherings was to be taken seriously. Sheriff Chad Chronister, after consulting with a state attorney, announced that Howard-Browne faced arrest for intentionally and repeatedly disregarding emergency orders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAD CHRONISTER: His 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.

GJELTEN: Chronister said the goal is not to stop anyone from worshipping. But the safety and well-being of our community must always come first, he said. A short time later, the pastor turned himself in and was taken into custody. He spent about 40 minutes behind bars but was then freed after posting bail. The charge he faces is a second-degree misdemeanor.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.