Florida mega-church pastor and evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested at home on Monday for allegedly holding services with hundreds of members in attendance in violation of a “safer-at-home” order, which prohibits large worship services during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Addressing a media conference after ordering the arrest, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister accused Howard-Browne of “reckless disregard for human life” but the pastor’s legal team, Liberty Counsel, argued there’s more to the story, reports Fox News.
The sheriff and Hillsborough County will get a lesson on the constitution and discriminatory application of the law,” Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, told Fox News.
The South African-born pastor of the River Church in Tampa Bay was released 40 minutes after his arrest after he paid a R8 927 ($500) bond.
Liberty Counsel argued in a press release that Hillsborough County’s orders issued on March 20 and 27 included exemptions and exceptions used by businesses that also should apply to the church.
Staver said Howard-Browne and his church took “extra precautions” and went “above and beyond” to be in “full compliance with the administrative order which allows any business to operate under the 6-foot restriction”.
In addition to following the 6-foot rule, the church staff wore gloves, gave every person hand sanitiser as they entered, and spent R1 788 million ($100 000) on a hospital-grade system that provides “continuous infectious microbial reduction (CIMR) that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the coronavirus family,” said Staver.
The sheriff said his command staff met with church leaders ahead of Sunday’s services to warn them about endangering the congregation. The sheriff’s office also placed a digital sign on the road near the church driveway that said “practice social distancing.”
He said: “The River at Tampa Bay has an advantage over most places of worship, because they have access to technology that allows them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast television for the more than 4 000 members to watch from the safety of their homes.”
“Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this staff for forcing us to do our job. That’s not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency,” Chronister said.
But Howard-Browne has argued on social media that the church is an essential business and also attacked the media for “religious bigotry and hate”, reports Charisma News.
“In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community, more than ever before,” a Facebook post on the church’s page said. “Even people who do not attend church regularly, or perhaps never go to church, need to know that there is somewhere for them to go when they need help.”
Charisma News reports that Howard-Browne says in a tweet on his Twitter account on Monday night that he’s praying for the sheriff who arrested him Monday afternoon, saying “He is doing his best in a very difficult situation. Please pray for him tonight”.
Howard-Browne has made his Twitter account and his Instagram account private because he says he has received death threats since his arrest, he says in a live webcast.
“We’ve been inundated with every threat known to man,” he says.
Howard-Browne isn’t alone in refusing to curtail in-person worship services, despite public health orders designed to stop the virus from spreading.
Churches in Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana have continued services as several states offer some degree of exemption for faith in their orders to shutter nonessential activity during the pandemic.
Commenting on Howard-Browne’s arrest, Jennifer Leclaire, a prominent US prophetic voice and author, says that “prophetically speaking”, the incident “goes beyond the debate over stopping a virus to a larger end-times issue”.
She says the arrest signals a new era that is”not what some thought it was, or at least they weren’t expecting this hard left turn. It’s time to prepare for persecution, not from the perspective of fear but from the perspective of endurance”.
“You may think Howard-Browne is stupid rather than brave. But step back from the emotions for a minute and consider the bigger picture.
“Yes, this is a new era in America. This is a flash point. Get used to it. And get ready. Don’t be the slowly boiled frog.
“This will lead to a Great Awakening and a great harvest,” she writes.