MIAMI – Deputies arrested Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, of The River at Tampa Bay Church, on Monday for defying the public health emergency stay-at-home order in Florida’s Hillsborough County during the coronavirus pandemic.
Howard-Browne held two mega-church services on Sunday arguing the church of about 4,000 members is an essential business. Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said they tried to reason with the pastor, but all of their attempts failed.
“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,” Chronister said.
Chronister also accused Howard-Browne of spreading misinformation by saying the new coronavirus is a “hoax” and “it’s not more serious than the flu.” Chronister said Howard-Browne alleged the First Amendment protected him. Warren disagreed and issued an arrest warrant.
When Howard-Browne refused to surrender, deputies showed up to his house in Hernando County to arrest him. Howard-Browne founded the church in 1996. Liberty Counsel, a law firm based out of Orlando, released a statement saying Howard-Browne spent $100,000 on a hospital-grade purification system for the church.
“The actions of Hillsborough Country and the Hernando County Sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings,” Attorney Mat Staver said in a statement, adding the stay-at-home order “has so many exceptions it looks like swiss cheese."
Bishop Thomas Scott, of the 34th Street Church of God, said he supported Chronister’s decision. He said it is important for religious leaders to protect their parishioners and their community. That is why he and other pastors in the region canceled public services and streamed their services online.
Howard-Browne faces charges of unlawful assembly to commit a breach of peace by 3 or more persons and a health safety violation of a public health emergency order.