The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Monday issued an arrest warrant for the pastor of a Florida megachurch who refused to stop holding packed church services amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a press conference that Tampa Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne is wanted on charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health rules after violating the county’s stay-at-home order, which bans gatherings of more than 10 people, by holding two large Sunday services at The River at Tampa Bay church.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk, and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger,” said Sheriff Chronister.
The River Church held a three-hour-long service, filled with music by the church band and a sermon by pastor Rodney Howard Browne, reports WUSF News.
Howard-Browne, an ally of President Donald Trump who recently said he’ll make the coronavirus disappear just like he did with the Zika virus, has been an outspoken opponent of social distancing requirements, claiming his church has machines that can stop the coronavirus and vowing to personally cure the state of Florida himself.
“We brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place, and uh, if somebody walks through the door it’s like, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze, it shoots it down at like 100 mph. It’ll neutralize it in split seconds. We have the most sterile building in, I don’t know, all of America,” he said.
“And we disturbed [the Zika virus], declared we cursed that thing in the name of Jesus and Zika disappeared,” the pastor said last month.
“We are doing the same thing with the Coronavirus,” he added. “We do not need it on these shores, and obviously — somebody said ‘Well, what about the rest of the world?’ I can’t be responsible for every city or whatever.”
In a Facebook video, Howard-Browne said worship services are protected by the First Amendment and claimed that his church is also exempt from the county order.
“We are not a non-essential service. We are vital to any community, to health and the well-being,” he said. “And the very thought that if people come to church, you’re going to kill them, that’s garbage.”
“The River Church has an advantage over most places of worship, as they have access the technology, allowing them to livestream their services over the internet and broadcast television for more than their 4,000 members to watch from the safety of their own homes,” Chronister said on Monday. “Instead, they encouraged people to come and gather at church, even provided bus transportation.”
Chronister made clear that he does not want to stop anyone from practicing their faith during the coronavirus pandemic, however, he said the safety and well-being of the community comes first and the pastor ignored several warnings and refused to meet personally with sheriff’s office officials.
“I believe there’s nothing more important than faith during a time like this,” Chronister said. “And as a sheriff’s office we would never impede someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort. But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.”
“Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this church for forcing us to do our job,” Chronister said. “That’s not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency. We are hopeful that this will be a wake up call for him, his legal staff and his entire leadership at the church. We’re also hoping that the congregation realizes the importance of reducing the spread of this virus and stays at home.”
Bishop Thomas Scott of Tampa’s 34th Street Church of God said that faith leaders need to understand the importance of social distancing.
“It is important also for the religious community to govern themselves, according to the laws of the land,” Scott said on Monday. “The Bible instructs us to obey the laws of the land.”
Video from Sunday’s service shows dozens of worshippers crowding elbow-to-elbow near the stage at one point.
Pastor Browne’s arrest warrant was issued for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors.