Hillsborough sheriff issues warrant for Tampa pastor who held service during coronavirus outbreak

click to enlarge Hillsborough sheriff issues warrant for Tampa pastor who held service during coronavirus outbreak
Photo via Follow the River/Facebook
Last Sunday, evangelical pastor Rodney Howard-Browne held two church services in front of thousands of members at his mega church in Tampa, potentially exposing them to the coronavirus, and now Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has issued a warrant for his arrest.

Speaking at a press conference Monday afternoon, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the arrest order for Howard-Brown includes unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both are second-degree misdemeanor, punishable up to 60 days in jail, with a maximum fine of $500. "Our goal is not to stop people from worshiping," said Chronister, "but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.

A livestream of a worship service from last Sunday at The River Tampa Bay Church, where Howard-Browne is the head pastor, shows a large congregation packed into his megachurch, presumably violating the county and state's orders requiring gatherings be fewer than 10 people.

"It’s a shame that someone has taken advantage of this. For whatever reason, I just don’t understand it," added Chronister. "The only reason I can see is it’s a reckless reason – to put your parishioners in jeopardy."

Howard-Browne has claimed that his church is an essential business, and that orders for him to shut down violate his First Amendment rights.

“The River Tampa Bay Church has an advantage over most places of worship,” said Chronister, “as they have access to technology allowing them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast television for more than their 4,000 members to watch from the safety from their own homes. Instead they encouraged people to come and gather at the church, even provided bus transportation for the services.

Chronister says Howard-Browne is in the process of turning himself in, but his deputies will go get him if they have to.

"As a sheriff’s office we would never impede on a person's religious beliefs as a means of comfort. But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely," added Chronister.

State Attorney Andrew Warren was also in attendance at today's press conference, and stated that it's unfortunate that that the pastor is hiding behind the first amendment. "One it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are clear and constitutional and valid," said Warren. "Second of all, leaders from our faith-based community from across have embraced the importance of social distancing. They’ve encouraged their congregations to practice social distancing for their own health and to slow the spread of COVID-19."

Last week, Howard-Browne claimed his church was “the most sterile building in America,” welcoming his congregation into his building this weekend. “The Lord has helped us to secure our congregation,” says Howard-Browne. “We brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place, and uh, if somebody walks through the door it’s like, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze, it shoots it down at like 100 mph. It'll neutralize it in split seconds. We have the sterile building in, I don’t know, all of America.”

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