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Megachurch Pastor Arrested For Holding Church Services Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

Tampa pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested after he kept holding church services amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a press conference on Monday, before the arrest was confirmed.  He said officials got a tip about the pastor refusing to temporarily stop services amid the outbreak and that the defendant pastor  instead encouraged people to keep meeting at The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, Florida.

Chronister said that Howard-Browne was disregarding the orders from President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group.

“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,” he said.

The sheriff said that morning services at the megachurch saw between 400 and 500 people and that Howard-Browne snubbed direct requests from officials to temporarily stop services. At the time, he said that it was his understanding that the defendant was in the process of turning himself in to deputies in Hernando County, where he lived. They were negotiating with the pastor and his attorney to turn himself in. The sheriff’s office confirmed the arrest after the press conference, according to WFTS-TV in Tampa, Fla. The defendant’s name doesn’t immediately appear in Hillsborough or Hernando jail records.

Howard-Browne and his church weren’t making a secret of any of their services.  “We feel that it is very important, at this time, that we keep our doors open for anyone who needs prayer or ministry and to make ourselves available to minister hope and healing and comfort to them,” the church said in a statement dated March 18.  The church’s statement also set up a possible legal fight over whether its services were “essential” — just as some Florida jurisdictions have moved to limit business activity to only those services deemed by the government to be “essential”:

In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients. We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty.

Howard-Browne was previously more blunt.  “The only time the church is closed is when the rapture is taking place,” he said. “This bible school is open because we’re raising up revivalists, not pansies.”

The pastor has been accused of presenting a number of conspiracy theories, including that the COVID-19 virus was made by the Chinese government and that tests for the disease were unverifiable.

We reached out for comment before learning of the arrest, but a receptionist at the church declined to get us in touch with Howard-Browne or someone who could speak on his behalf.

[Screengrab via Rodney Howard-Browne.]

Editor’s note:  This post has been updated to include the church’s argument that its services are essential.

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