A Florida pastor who refused to stop holding crowded church services was arrested after officials said he flouted emergency orders against public gatherings to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Florida officials said they had repeatedly reached out to Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne and staff at the River at Tampa Bay Church, asking them not to hold in-person services for fear it could expose parishioners to the virus. But the pastor continued to hold services Sunday.
"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk, and thousands of residents who interact with them this week in danger," Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a press conference.
Speaking to his congregation during one of two services Sunday, Howard-Browne spoke at length about the coronavirus and COVID-19, and he told people the church was "totally covered by the law."
"Not only the right of free speech, but the right to peaceful assembly and practice what we believe," he said, according to a video of the service. "Suddenly we're demonized because we believe God heals."
The Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal organization that has advocated against LGBT rights, is representing Howard-Browne in the case and argued that the county order against public gatherings "has so many exceptions it looks like swiss [sic] cheese."
"The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt if they can comply with a six-foot separation," Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel said in a statement. "Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation."
The organization also argued family groups were separated by six feet during the service, staff wore gloves, worshipers were given sanitizer when they entered the church, and the church spent $100,000 for a "hospital grade purification system."
The pastor went on during his service to claim coming "physical war" and that the regulations being put in place by local, state, and federal officials — restrictions aimed at saving lives by preventing the spread of the coronavirus — were being put in place to "shut down the church."
"The whole thing is planned that way to shut down the Gospel, to shut down Christianity," he said. "Someone said, 'No, you're making it up.' I'm not making it up."
Howard-Browne at one point suggested to his congregation that God would replenish by miracle their low supply of toilet paper.
"I believe this will be a time of supernatural sustenance," he said. "You look at your toilet paper and you think you're going to run out of toilet paper, but you have another roll where that other one was and you don't even know how that even took place. When you look again, there's still enough. You think you're going to run out, but when you look again there's still enough."
The congregation laughed as he talked about toilet paper.
Law enforcement officials said Howard-Browne ignored attempts to resolve the issue without an arrest, and they were unable to take him into custody him at the church because the pastor "has a vast security force."
"I believe there's nothing more important than faith during a time like this and, as a sheriff's office, would never impede someone to lean on their religious beliefs as a source of comfort, but practicing those beliefs has to be done safely," Chronister said. "Instead [he] was encouraging people to meet at his church."
Howard-Browne was charged with two second-degree misdemeanor counts of reckless disregard of unlawful assembly and violation of public emergency rules.
Chronister pointed out that, unlike many religious facilities, Howard-Browne's church has the ability to worship remotely and already broadcasts services to its followers online.
The pastor ultimately turned himself in to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and was released a few minutes later, he told BuzzFeed News.
In a message, Howard-Browne said he could not comment on his arrest "till the legal teams have thrashed everything out."
A high-profile supporter of President Trump’s, Howard-Browne has visited the White House and was one of several religious leaders who put their hands on the president and prayed over him in the Oval Office.
Arguing against closing the church, Howard-Browne compared his preaching in person to his congregation to missionaries who have traveled to war-torn Syria.
"If ever we need to have church it's in the middle of a pandemic," he said. "We're not worried about our life. We're not worried about our safety."