Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday on charges of unlawful assembly, one day after his church held services in violation of a new county order prohibiting gatherings larger than 10 people.
Howard-Browne, pastor of the River at Tampa Bay Church, was released after posting a $500 bond. Hillsborough County issued a stay-at-home order last week, saying in its order COVID-19 is causing “widespread infection and loss of life” and is not slowing in Florida.
“Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshipping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first,” Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a press conference, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
State attorney Andrew Warren quoted Scripture in defending the county’s action.
“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.”
Liberty Counsel is representing Howard-Browne and says the county’s order targets religious groups and has multiple exemptions.
All total, the order includes 42 exceptions for those who are not required to stay at home. At the end of the list of 42 exceptions, the order says “businesses which are not described” in the exemptions “and are able to maintain the required physical distancing (6 feet) may operate.”
Liberty Counsel says the church enforced the county’s rules by: 1) maintaining six feet between family groups; 2) requiring staff to wear gloves; 3) giving every person who entered the building hand sanitizer; 4) imposing a six-feet barrier in the coffee shop and the farmer’s market with a specially marked floor. The church also has a hospital-grade purification system, which cost $100,000, Liberty Counsel says.
“The Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like Swiss cheese,” said Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver. “The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt or exempt if they can comply with a six-foot separation. Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation.
“... Neither the Constitution nor Florida law protecting churches and the free exercise of religion disappears,” Staver said. “This order from Hillsborough County is not narrowly tailored to achieve its underlying objective.”
The sheriff’s office said it warned the church’s attorneys last week about the county’s order.
Photo courtesy: Hernando County Jail
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.