Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday for violating a “safer-at-home” order that bars large gatherings, including worship services, in an effort to thwart the spread of COVID-19.
Approximately ten days prior to his arrest, Howard-Browne insisted that “the only time the church will close is when the Rapture is taking place.”
Hillsborough County, where Howard-Browne’s church The River at Tampa Bay, Florida is located, issued a “safer-at-home” order effective March 27, according to local news outlets. The measure mandates that non-essential businesses that cannot operate without maintaining a safe distance of six feet will need to shut down.
After Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister saw images of the crowded church service from Sunday posted online, he was filled with anger, calling the gathering a “reckless disregard for public safety.”
“For whatever reason, I just don’t understand it. The only reason I can see is it’s a reckless reason — to put your parishioners in jeopardy,” Chronister said. “The safety and well being of our community must always come first.”
Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules. Violations of the “safer-at-home” order are considered second-degree misdemeanors and are punishable by a maximum of 60 days in jail and fines up to $500.
Liberty Counsel, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting religious freedoms, has decided to represent Howard-Browne in his case against Hillsborough County. The agency emphasized that the church did, in fact, enforce the six-foot rule required by the “safer-at-home” order.
In addition, all staff wore gloves, every worshiper received hand sanitizer and the church even invested $100,000 on a hospital-grade purification system that is used to kill microbes in the coronavirus family.
Liberty Counsel strongly objects to how the county followed through with its mandate and sited that the administrative order was far from clear and included so many exceptions that it’s nearly impossible to interpret.
“The Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like Swiss cheese,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said. “The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt or exempt if they can comply with a six-foot separation.”
“Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation.”
During a press conference in which the county announced the arrest of Howard-Browne, Chronister emphasized that the Sheriff’s Department isn’t trying to stifle churches from worshiping.
“Our goal is not to stop people from worshiping but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”
“I believe there’s nothing more important than faith in a time like this,” Chronister added. “And as a sheriff’s office we would never impede someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort. But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.”