Megapastor arrested for holding church in defiance of ‘social distancing’ orders

By WND Staff


The internationally influential pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church, Rodney Howard-Browne, was taken into custody Monday by Hernando County sheriff’s deputies in Florida for holding a church service Sunday in defiance of social-distancing orders.

Liberty Counsel, which is representing Howard-Browne, said Hernando County Sheriff Chad Chronister held a press conference announcing the arrest in which he invited two speakers to scold the pastor.

State Attorney Andrew Warren quoted Mark 12:31, saying, “There is no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Bishop Thomas Scott, a candidate for Hillsborough County commissioner, delivered a theological lecture countering Howard-Browne.

Browne, born in South Africa, is known as the catalyst of spiritual revivals characterized by unusual manifestations such as uncontrollable laughter.

His arrest Sunday stems from Hillsborough County’s March 20 order banning “public or private gatherings, including community, civic, public leisure, faith-based events, sporting events, concerts and any similar events that bring together more than 10 people in a single room, single space, or any venue, at the same time.”

The constitutionality of such orders is disputed. They may be valid, Liberty Counsel argues, only if “narrowly tailored,” meaning implemented in a way that imposes the least infringement of constitutional rights.

Liberty Counsel noted Hillsborough County’s ‘Safer-at-Home’ administrative order Friday contains 42 paragraphs of exceptions, including “religious personnel.'”

“Following this long list of exceptions, the same order adds another huge exception: ‘Businesses which are not described in paragraph 3, and are able to maintain the required physical distancing (6 feet) may operate.’ (emphasis added). Paragraph 3 is the section with 42 paragraphs of exceptions. Paragraph 5, quoted above, stated if a ‘business’ is not mentioned as exempted but is able to comply with the six (6) feet separation may operate,” Liberty Counsel said.

For the church service Sunday, Liberty Counsel said, Howard-Browne “took extra precautions,” including an enforced six-foot distance between family groups, gloves for all staff, hand sanitizer for all comers, and $100,000 spent on a hospital-grade purification system throughout the building.

“The Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like Swiss cheese,” said Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel.

“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,” he said. “Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation. The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body. Neither the Constitution nor Florida law protecting churches and the free exercise of religion disappear. This order from Hillsborough County is not narrowly tailored to achieve its underlying objective.

“Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding six-foot distancing, it went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people,” said Staver.

“Contrary to Sheriff Chronister’s allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was ‘reckless,’ the actions of Hillsborough Country and the Hernando County Sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings.”

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