Pastor of Tampa church that held two large Sunday services arrested

BY TONY MARRERO
TAMPA BAY TIMES/TNS

The pastor of a Tampa megachurch who held two services on Sunday for scores of worshippers was arrested Monday for violating a county order requiring residents to stay at home to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, co-founder of the River at Tampa Bay Church, turned himself in to the Hernando County jail and was booked on Hillsborough charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency, jail records show.

He was booked into the jail at 2:20 p.m., records show. He was freed about 40 minutes later after posting $500 bail.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office warned Howard-Browne through his attorneys church leaders not to put the congregation at risk of contracting and spreading the virus by holding services at his church, Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a Monday news conference announcing that he had obtained a warrant for Howard-Browne’s arrest.

The Sheriff’s Office had received an anonymous tip that Howard-Browne was inviting the congregation to attend, even providing bus service to the church, Chronister said.

SHOULDER TO SHOULDER

Howard-Browne refused to heed the warnings and held two large services on Sunday. A livestream on the church’s Facebook page showed congregants gathered for its Sunday morning “Main Event” service, many standing shoulder to shoulder while the church band played.

“Because of the reckless disregard of public safety and after repeated requests and warnings, I worked with our state attorney, Andrew Warren, to obtain a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors,” Chronister said. “Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshipping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”

Warren then took to the lectern and quoted the Bible.

“I’d remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31, which said there’s no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself,” Warren said. “Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”

SERVICE LASTED FOR HOURS

The county’s order, which took effect Friday, requires gatherings, including those held by faith-based organizations, be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.

The order also requires residents to stay at home unless they are getting food or medicine, exercising or doing essential work that cannot be performed at home.

State law allows the order to be enforced as a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail, a maximum fine of $500 or both. Hillsborough officials have said the penalties for non-compliance would likely begin with warnings and fines.

Howard-Browne addressed the issue during the 3 ½-hour stream of the Sunday morning service, which started with nearly an hour of music performed by the church band.

“No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling, no weapon formed against them,” Howard-Browne said at the start of the sermon, quoting Bible scripture. The crowd cheered and applauded. In some places, congregants appeared to be standing and sitting with an empty chair between them.

“Of course, we’ve got what they call social distancing in here in this room and there’s people in other places and whatever, but we’re glad you came today,” Rodney Howard-Browne said.

PASTOR DEFENDED DECISION

Church officials did not immediately respond to phone and Facebook messages from the Tampa Bay Times Monday morning.

“I know that they’re trying to beat me up, you know, having the church operational, but we are not a non-essential service,” Howard-Browne said at the start of the Sunday morning sermon. He claimed the church is “covered by the law.”

“Not only the right of free speech but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe,” he said. “Suddenly we are demonized because we believe God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some sort of kooks.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp tweeted Sunday that “many people” had contacted her about the service and that she had been in touch with Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.

In a statement released on March 18, church leaders signaled they considered church an essential service like police and fire departments and hospitals.

“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 statement said. “We believe God’s Word to us, which says to trust Him and to not be fearful but to have faith in Him.”

‘CONSTITUTIONAL LIBERTIES’ CITED

The statement said the church “is doing, and will do, everything in our power to support the efforts of our wider community by cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and take any other recommended measures to protect our people and keep them healthy and safe.”

“If anyone is either not feeling well or would prefer to take the precaution of remaining at home for their own health, we encourage them to do that and to continue to watch the services online,” the statement said.

In a public Facebook post on March 23, Howard-Browne’s wife and church co-founder Adonica Howard-Browne said the country’s founders “were intimately familiar with pandemics, viruses and plagues, yet they did not allow any to suspend our Constitutional liberties.”

“Not one word in the Constitution about plagues or pandemics to exempt the government from any of our Bill of Rights,” the post says. “Why do our current courts allow it? Because the public is asleep at the wheel. Think the pandemic threatens to kills us all? A review of the data shows the pandemic is more panic than plague.”

As of Monday, COVID-19 was responsible for more than 2,500 deaths in the United States, 63 of them in Florida, according to Johns Hopkins University and the Florida Department of Health.

Born in South Africa, the Harold-Brownes and their three children moved to the United States in 1987 and founded The River at Tampa Bay in 1996, according to the church website and Facebook page.

They also founded Revival Ministries International, the River Bible Institute, River School of Worship, and the River School of Government. The church campus is off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, near Interstate 75.

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