TAMPA, Fla. — Florida officials have arrested the pastor of a megachurch after detectives say he held two Sunday services with hundreds of people and violated a safer-at-home order in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a news conference Monday that he negotiated with the attorney of Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne to turn himself in to authorities in Hernando County. His church is located in Tampa.
Howard-Browne isn’t alone in refusing to curtail in-person worship services despite public health orders designed to stop the virus from spreading. Churches in Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana have continued to invite worshippers in recent days as at least a half-dozen states offer some degree of exemption for faith in their orders to shutter nonessential activity during the pandemic.
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 held the services. The Sheriff’s Office also placed a digital sign on the road near the church driveway that said “practice social distancing.”
On March 18, the Church Called Its Ministry an Essential Service
“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.”
The church has said it sanitized the building, and the pastor said on Twitter that the church is an essential business. He also attacked the media for “religious bigotry and hate.”
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.