Tampa Mega-Church Pastor Arrested For Ignoring COVID-19 Warnings

Tampa Mega-Church Pastor Arrested For Ignoring COVID-19 Warnings

Tampa mega-church pastor Rodney Howard-Browne has been arrested for holding services attended by hundreds and ignoring coronavirus social distancing warnings. This March 30, 2020, booking photo provided by the Hernando County Jail shows Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church. (Hernando County Jail via AP)

Churchgoers in several states aren’t staying at home on Sundays. Megachurches in Louisiana, Ohio, and Florida are still going to services attended by more than 50 people in defiance of social distancing orders.

This has landed Tampa Pastor Rodney Howard-Brown in jail. The megachurch pastor is facing charges after defying a “safer-at-home” order in effect in Hillsborough County, put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. According to the local sheriff, up to 500 people attended services recently held by Howard-Browne at The River at Tampa Bay Church.

Howard-Browne posted a live stream of the services on YouTube.

“We are not a non-essential service,” Howard-Browne said to his congregation. “You’re probably going to get infected at some other place, not here.”

The pastor condemned scientific reports about the virus and said that the pandemic was of less concern than the flu — a view that medical experts have disputed, KTVU reported.

Howard-Browne, 58, turned himself in after Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and State Attorney Andrew Warren issued an arrest warrant for charges of unlawful assembly and violating public health emergency rules of isolation and quarantine.

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Howard-Browne posted a $500 bond and was released 40 minutes later.

Deputies had warned Howard-Browne previously on at least two separate occasions about the “dangerous environment” his church was creating. 

“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,” Sheriff Chronister said at a press conference. “They have access to technology allowing them to live stream 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.”

There are other pastors besides Howard-Browne who are still holding in-person services. With 3,500 members, Solid Rock Church in Lebanon, Ohio, held services recently despite a letter from the local health department urging it not to meet, according to a local news report. In a statement, the church said it had a First Amendment right to religious assembly.

Chronister pointed out that the warrant was not meant as an attack on religious freedom and noted that other Tampa Bay-area churches are still operating while following social distancing guidelines set by the CDC. 

In Louisiana, which has seen a major spike in coronavirus cases and has a stay-at-home order in place, the Life Tabernacle Church is still holding services. At the last service, more than 550 parishioners attended, pastor Tony Spell told a local news outlet NBC15. Spell said he didn’t believe his congregation was in danger of infection. 

“It’s not a concern,” he said. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.” 

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Louisiana’s COVID-19 deaths have increased to the fourth-highest in the country. “We’re on a trajectory right now where we’ll not be able to deliver the care that people need when they need it,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” 

There are megachurches nationwide who are complying with the shutdown order and have turned to live streaming.

“Some megachurches have opted out of in-person services and turned to live streaming entirely. The Church at Rock Creek, a megachurch in Little Rock, Arkansas, not only held online services—it also digitized tithing and children’s activities. Likewise, Joel Osteen, the nation’s best known mega- church pastor, held services online, streaming on social media and through his own app,” Bloomberg reported.