Tampa, FL – A Florida pastor who ignored the state’s “safer at home” order and held two Sunday services with more than 500 people in attendance was arrested on Monday.
Officials said that Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne even sent buses to pick up some of his parishioners and bring them to church on March 29, WTVT reported.
Law enforcement tried to meet with the pastor on Friday to discuss their concerns.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister sent command staff to the East Tampa church on March 28 to talk about the “dangerous environment” the church was creating, but the pastor refused to meet with them and also refused to cancel Sunday services, , WTVT reported.
A live-stream of the services showed a packed crowd and zero effort being made to adhere to any social distancing restrictions.
Sheriff Chronister and Florida State’s Attorney Andrew Warren announced Monday that an arrest warrant had been issued for Howard-Browne, WTVT reported.
He was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and violating public health emergency rules of isolation and quarantine.
“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,” Sheriff Chronister told reporters. “They have access to technology allowing them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast to their 400 members from the safety of their own homes, but instead they chose to gather at church.”
The sheriff said the shutdown had nothing to do with religious freedom and pointed to other area churches that have continued services while adhering to the safety guidelines, WTVT reported.
“I was appalled and also frightened at the fact that those individuals [were] thinking and believing they are doing the right thing. How many people are they going to infect if they have COVID-19?” Sheriff Chronister asked. “There is nothing more important than faith especially during a pandemic, but like every other church here in the Bay Area, do it responsibly.”
The sheriff said he was worried about how many people who attended those service were infected and how their violation of the “safer at home” guidance would help spread the virus, WTVT reported.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the pastor here is hiding behind the First Amendment,” Warren added. “One, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid. Second of all, leaders from our faith-based community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing.”
Howard-Browne was released from custody on a $500 bond about 40 minutes after he was taken into custody, WTVT reported.
In Louisiana, a Pentecostal preacher who has claimed his worship services cure cancer and HIV held services for 1,000 people on Sunday, too, the Associated Press reported.
Reverend Tony Spell has claimed coronavirus is “politically motivated” and said no “dictator law” would keep him from holding services during the pandemic, and he also sent buses to pick up his parishioners and bring them to church.
On Saturday, Spell led more than 100 people who were not social distancing on a parade through the community in a traditional Louisiana “funeral repast,” the Associated Press reported.
But Louisiana’s governor and local authorities have thus far done nothing to stop the minister from continuing to plan and hold large gatherings, WAFB reported.
“I have not put pressure on any officials to enforce that in any particular situation, whether it’s in Baton Rouge or elsewhere, but I do implore those folks to comply,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said.
But leaders of other Christian churches in the area have banded together to encourage their church members to stay home, WAFB reported.
“The best way to worship a savior who healed the sick right now is to do so from home. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, and we can’t love them if we’re giving them coronavirus,” said Rev. Nathan Empsall from a group called Faithful America.