arrested after defying state and county emergency restrictions regarding the coronavirus pandemic, but now an executive order issued today from Gov. Ron DeSantis says attending church services in person is perfectly fine.
After weeks of criticism from lawmakers and the public, DeSantis finally announced an executive order calling for a statewide 30-day stay-at-home order to go into effect this Friday; the order limits movement only to essential businesses and essential activities.
The order, which you can read for yourself right here, also lists essential activities that are permitted during the 30-day period, and includes things like exercising, taking care of pets, assisting a loved one, and "religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship."
This is notable, because on Monday evangelical pastor and diehard Trump supporter Rodney Howard-Browne of the the River Tampa Bay Church was arrested after the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office urged him not to hold two Sunday services at his megachurch, which he has previously claimed is the “most sterile building in America.”
Technically, Howard-Browne's church is now deemed "essential," which is a title he's long lobbied for.
However, he still must limit his congregation to just 10 people or less to comply with a previous statewide executive order. But as a live webcast from his last service showed, the pastor doesn't seem to have a problem breaking this rule, which he's referred to as a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said April 1 on Facebook Live that people "can go back to church in other areas" but not in Hillsborough County. "So, what occurred at The River Church on Sunday, it was not allowable then and it's not allowable today, and it's not allowable Sunday either," said Castor. "It was a very reckless decision on the part of that pastor, and we are able to have more stringent regulations than the state's order."
We reached out to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings to clarify this point in his own Executive Order, which you can read here for yourself – there are many, many exemptions, but churches and places of worship are not among them. Regardless, according to County staff, the state order supersedes their own, so it's a moot point.
We've also reached out to Gov. DeSantis' staff for comment, but so far, no word.
Thankfully, most churches have closed their doors for in-person worship services, switching instead to livestreams, and for good reason. Last week, a Virginia pastor died from COVID-19 after saying "the media is pumping out fear" and "doing more harm than good." And, last month, South Korean authorities announced that a Christian megachurch was responsible for at least 2,000 COVID-19 cases in its region.
Since his arrest, Howard-Browne has obtained the legal services of Liberty Counsel chairman Mathew Staver, who is best known for representing Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay people back in 2015, and arguing that the “Q” in LGBTQ stands for “pedophilia."
This story originally appeared in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and is still developing.
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