KEY POINTS

  • A Florida pastor was arrested for holding church services despite stay-at-home orders
  • Authorities explained the situation to the church leaders twice but were ignored
  • The pastor is known to make controversial statements and push conspiracy theories

Florida authorities arrested evangelical Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who continued to conduct large church services despite the orders for people to stay at their homes except for "essential services" such as for trips to the grocery, pharmacy or the office. The arrests came Monday.

The authorities first tried to make contact with Howard-Browne in The River at Tampa Bay Church on Friday, March 27, after they received an anonymous tip that the pastor was refusing the requests to temporarily stop holding large church gatherings. This is a violation of Executive Order 20-5, which limits gatherings to less than 10 people.

Authorities, again, made contact with the church's legal representatives on Sunday to educate them on the executive orders and why refusing to follow could be dangerous for their community but, the pastor and church leaders ignored the warnings.

According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, hundreds of people attended Howard-Browne’s church services at 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, with the livestream of the morning services showing the sanctuary not completely packed but with far less than the six-feet social distancing standard. According to authorities, this violates the various orders set by the President, the Governor of Florida, the CDC and Hillsborough County.

As such, Howard-Browne was arrested on two-second degree misdemeanors for Unlawful Assembly and Violation of Public Health Emergency Rules.

"I believe there is nothing more important than faith at a time like this, and as a Sheriff's Office, we would never impede on someone's ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort," Sheriff Chad Chronister said. "But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely."

In Howard-Browne's defense, one of his attorneys, Mat Staver, released a statement saying that the church took extra precautions during the services by providing each attendee with hand sanitizer, having the staff wear gloves and enforcing a six-foot distance between family groups.

"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," Staver said. "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."

Howard-Browne has stated, earlier in March, that the only time that the church will close is when Rapture is taking place. In fact, a previous statement from the church described the coronavirus-related orders as a violation of religious freedom.

The pastor has been known to push conspiracy theories, including ones about the coronavirus being used as a weapon to instill fear. In fact, earlier in March, he even encouraged the people to greet one another by shaking hands and stated that the Bible school will remain open because they are raising "revivalists, not pansies."

"Because the climate change narrative for global governance failed, they are using the World Health Organization to then come in and take over the control of nations and then they are going to bring in vaccines …" Howard-Browne had said at a previous sermon. "There's going to be forced vaccines, which they can kill off many people with vaccines. It's about population reduction because there are too many people on the planet, but with the correct vaccines we can shoot them and then they can die."

Police man a traffic stop on the route to the Florida Keys, which have been temporarily closed to visitors since March 22 because of the coronavirus crisis Police man a traffic stop on the route to the Florida Keys, which have been temporarily closed to visitors since March 22 because of the coronavirus crisis Photo: Florida Keys News Bureau / Andy Newman