Hernando County Sheriff's Office

Florida Megachurch Pastor Arrested For Church Services Defying Stay-At-Home Order

Authorities in Florida have arrested megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for continuing to hold church services in defiance of a county stay-at-home order, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Howard-Browne heads up The River at Tampa Bay Church and had received warnings about encouraging large gatherings during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and police felt compelled to arrest him after he continued to defy both those warnings and the orders from county officials.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronsiter had harsh words for the pastor following the arrest.

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"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk," he said during a press conference, CNN reported, "as well as put thousands of residents who may interact with them in danger."

"Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this church for forcing us to do our job," he added. "That’s not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency."

Howard-Browne has been a notable denier of the seriousness of COVID-19.

Facebook | The River at Tampa Bay Church

Despite alarmingly increasing numbers of cases across the nation and reports of clogged emergency departments, as well as the declaration of a national state of emergency, Howard-Browne has consistently downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak as well as spreading right wing conspiracy theories.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Howard-Browne, who participated in a 2017 "laying on of hands" on President Trump in the Oval Office has, among other things, mused about the virus being a "phantom plague" created in a Chinese lab, while also suggesting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is somehow involved.

At the same time, Howard-Browne has also tried to assure both authorities and congregants that they would be safe in his church.

Facebook | The River at Tampa Bay Church

Liberty Counsel, a right wing organization representing Howard-Browne following his arrest, said that the church had been practicing social distancing, with staff wearing gloves and all attendants encouraged to stand six feet apart.

However, Facebook videos from the most recent services show hundreds of churchgoers standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

Howard-Browne also claims that The River at Tampa Bay Church is "the most sterile building, I don’t know, in all of North America."

Facebook | The River at Tampa Bay Church

His claim is based upon what he calls a $100,000 "hospital-grade purification system."

"The Lord has helped us secure our congregation," he reported said in a March 27 video. "We have brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place. If someone walks through the door, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze it shoots it down at a 100 mph. It’ll neutralize it in split-seconds."

The pastor's representatives refuted the sheriff's characterization of Howard-Browne as "reckless."

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"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," attorney Matt Staver said in a statement.

"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."

Florida state attorney Andrew Warren called Howard-Browne's First Amendment stance "unfortunate."

Hernando County Sheriff's Office

"For one, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid," he said. "Second of all, leaders of our faith community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing."

"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."

Howard-Browne was released after about 40 minutes in custody after posting a $500 bond.

Facebook | The River at Tampa Bay Church

The pastor faces a pair of misdemeanor charges: unlawful assembly, and violation of health emergency rules. He will still have to attend court, but no date has been set yet.

h/t: Tampa Bay Times, CNN