Florida mega-church pastor and evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne who was arrested on Monday for allegedly violating a government order by holding a service last Sunday announced yesterday that he will be taking legal action for wrongful arrest and will not open his church doors this Sunday “to allow an opportunity for people to take a deep breath and calm down”.
The South African-born pastor of the River Church in Tampa Bay was arrested at home and released after 40 minutes after he paid a R8 927 ($500) bond. At a press conference after ordering the arrest, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister accused Howard-Browne of “reckless disregard for human life” for allegedly ignoring a ban on large services during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Howard-Browne’s legal team, Liberty Counsel, responded quickly to his arrest, arguing that the Hillsborough County’s orders issued on March 20 and 27 included exemptions and exceptions used by businesses that also should apply to the church. Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, 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 R1.8 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.
In a statement released yesterday (read full statement here), Howard-Browne says: “We did not hold church to defy any order; nor did we hold church to send a political message. We did not hold church for self-promotion or financial motives, as some have wrongly accused. We held church because it is our mission to save souls and help people, and because we in good faith did everything possible to comply with the Executive Order. Indeed, Sheriff Chronister told us last Thursday that we could hold church.”
He says that as word of his arrest has traveled around the world, he received “vulgar verbal abuse and death threats from people who do not know me and are not familiar with the facts”. But he also received many words of support and prayer. “Many people are deeply concerned that in America a pastor would be arrested,” he says.
In his statement he dismisses as false a number of claims that Sheriff Chronister made at his press conference, including that Howard-Browne was arrested at home because the church has an arsenal of weapons, that he was reckless for holding the service and that he had ignored repeated warnings not to hold services.
“The Executive Order on its face, and as applied, discriminates against religious services and gatherings, despite the fact that the First Amendment provides express protections to houses of worship and assembly. There is no similar constitutional protection for commercial businesses; yet houses of worship and religious gatherings are signaled out for discrimination. The State of Florida’s Executive Order exempts churches, as does the Orange County Executive Order, and many other county orders.
“Yesterday, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a new Executive Order that states “religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” are “essential activities.” Surely, Hillsborough County could follow their lead and not violate the Constitution. There are other means available to achieve the interest that we all share to protect human life,” says Howard-Browne.
He says his while he holds no ill-will against anybody as a result of this week’s event, his legal team will vigorously defend him against “this unlawful arrest” and will file a federal challenge to the constitutionality of the Hillsborough County Executive Order.
“At this time, I have not made any decision about Easter Sunday or services thereafter. Adonica [his wife] and I are praying and seeking the Lord for wisdom. I will say, however, that the church cannot be closed indefinitely. We believe that there are less restrictive means available to balance all the various interests,” he says.