Coronavirus: Tampa Bay Pastor Arrested for Holding Church Service

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne leads services at The River at Tampa Bay Church.
The River at Tampa Bay Church/Facebook

Tampa Bay-area pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday for allegedly violating social distancing guidelines after he held two services at his mega-church over the weekend.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced Howard-Browne’s arrest on social media, writing that the pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church “intentionally and repeatedly disregarded state and local public health orders” by holding the services despite a “safer at home” order being in effect in the area due to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier Monday, State Attorney Andrew Warren announced that an arrest warrant had been issued for Howard-Browne. The pastor faces charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency order, said Chronister.

Howard-Browne’s church held two services on Sunday and provided transportation to attend.

“They have access to technology allowing them to livestream their services over the internet and broadcast to their 400 members from the safety of their own homes, but instead they chose to gather at church,” Chronister told reporters at a press conference.

“I was appalled and also frightened at the fact that those individuals [were] thinking and believing they are doing the right thing. How many people are they going to infect if they have COVID-19?” he added. “There is nothing more important than faith especially during a pandemic, but like every other church here in the Bay Area, do it responsibly.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that the pastor here is hiding behind the First Amendment,” Warren added. “One, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid. Second of all, leaders from our faith-based community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing.”

Howard-Browne took to YouTube to defend his decision to hold the service, claiming: “We brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place.”

“If they sneeze it shoots it down like at 100 miles per hour and it will neutralize it in a split second,” he added.

In a separate statement, the church said “it would be wrong for us to close our doors” on worshippers, especially “in a time of crisis”

“[P]eople are fearful and in need of comfort and community,” the statement concluded.

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