Criminal Justice

Megachurch pastor is arrested for hosting Sunday services despite order limiting gatherings

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A megachurch pastor in Florida has been arrested for defying Hillsborough County’s limit on gatherings of 10 or more people.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay Church turned himself in Monday on second-degree misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.

The Tampa Bay Times, the New York Times and CNN have coverage.

Howard-Browne, 58, was freed about 40 minutes later after posting $500 bail.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said his office tried to warn Howard-Browne that church services are not exempted from the order. Howard-Browne refused to meet with his office’s representatives and hosted morning and evening services Sunday, Chronister said at a news conference.

A Facebook video feed showed that parishioners were standing close together during one of the services.

Howard-Browne is being represented by Liberty Counsel, which said the church enforced the rule on 6-foot separations between family groups, staff members wore gloves, and the church had installed a $100,000 hospital grade purification system.

Howard-Browne touted the benefits of the system in a video posted March 27 by the Right Wing Watch.

“We have brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place,” Howard-Browne said in the video. “If someone walks through the door, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze, it shoots it down at a 100 mph. It’ll neutralize it in split-seconds. So we have the most sterile building, I don’t know, in all of North America.”

Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said in a statement that the county and its sheriff were discriminating against religion and church gatherings.

“The Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like Swiss cheese,” the statement said. “The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt or exempt if they can comply with a 6-foot separation. Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation. The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body. Neither the Constitution nor Florida law protecting churches and the free exercise of religion disappear. This order from Hillsborough County is not narrowly tailored to achieve its underlying objective.”

Andrew Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County, said at the press conference that emergency orders are constitutional and apply to everyone.

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