Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, leader of Revival International Ministries and The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, Florida, was arrested Monday for holding worship services during the coronavirus pandemic in violation of a "safer-at-home" order.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said that when he saw images from a crowded Sunday service at the church posted online, "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."
Howard-Browne's actions were a direct violation of Executive Order 20-05, which went into effect on March 20, limiting gatherings, including faith-based gatherings, to less than 10 people. He was also violating the Safer-At-Home Order, which went into effect on March 27, advising Hillsborough County residents to remain in their homes as much as possible to create greater social distancing and reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, the sheriff's office said, Christian Post noted.
Chronister told 10 News that he hopes church members realize how serious officials are after this arrest. "I believe there's nothing more important than faith in a time like this. And as a sheriff's office we would never impede someone's ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort," Chronister said. "But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely."
After hours after he was arrested, Howard-Browne said he's now getting threats stirred by "religious bigotry and hatred "during a Facebook Live broadcast.
"My story doesn't change. I understand what the media said. I understand what the sheriff said. There's another whole side about that which I'm not gonna go into that. The sheriff's doing the best job that he can. I understand I got thrown under the bus which, that's fine. I'm a big boy, I can take it. I understood. I knew this was coming. I thought it was gonna happen yesterday (Sunday) it didn't, it happened today. But we have forced a national debate on the First Amendment. And it's not about a virus. It's about the church being a[n] essential service to the community where the church can meet and take care of the people. That's the whole thing," he said.
His actions were a direct violation of Executive Order 20-05, which went into effect on March 20, limiting gatherings, including faith-based gatherings, to less than 10 people. He was also violating the Safer-At-Home Order, which went into effect on March 27, advising Hillsborough County residents to remain in their homes as much as possible to create greater social distancing and reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, the sheriff's office said.
A private test poll of 226 pastors conducted by Barna Research on March 20-23 showed that while a vast majority of pastors, 67%, have opted to close their churches to observe social distancing orders in light of the pandemic, 5% said their churches will remain open as normal. Another 17% said they plan on staying open for small gatherings or meetings, and 11% will remain open to offer crisis services according to CP.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins responded to churches that have continued to gather as the coronavirus pandemic moves across the county, calling their action a "defiance of common sense."
"At this point, holding public church gatherings in the midst of a public health crisis is not a defense of religious freedom - it is a defiance of common sense and the care of your congregation. Spread the Good News, not the virus!" tweeted Perkins, whose organization works "to advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview."