Hillsborough County and the state of Florida have newly recognized religious services as “essential” activities after a Florida pastor was arrested for holding service.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a media conference on Thursday that closing churches was unconstitutional and “we can’t start ripping up the Constitution,” WFTS-TV reported.
DeSantis explained that people need religious services, though he encouraged houses of worship to adhere to recommended guidelines, holding online services or ensuring that people stay six feet apart from one another for in-person services.
Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group expanded on the guidelines, asking people to adhere to public health experts’ recommendations.
“Religious Services are considered an essential activity under” DeSantis’ “stay-at-home” order, the guidance read.
“Those who choose to attend religious services in-person should follow the public health and safety guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control,” it added.
“This includes providing at least 6 feet of space between attendees and avoiding gathering in groups larger than 10 people.”
This decision comes after Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church was arrested Monday on charges of unlawful assembly and violating Hillsborough County’s “safer-at-home” order, which banned groups of 10 people or more from gathering during the coronavirus outbreak.
Liberty Counsel, the nonprofit legal firm group representing Howard-Browne, called for Sheriff Chad Chronister to provide written documentation that he would not arrest people gathered at their church after the reversed ruling.
According to Liberty Counsel, the sheriff had told the pastor last week the church could meet and then issued a warrant for the pastor’s arrest.
“The criminal charge must be immediately dismissed, and the file sealed,” Liberty Counsel wrote.
“The sheriff has done great damage to Pastor Howard-Browne and The River church.”
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said that the county made the change because it “knew the lawsuit was coming this week and knew they would not win.”
“We are also pleased that every church in Florida is now free to worship. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne brought worldwide attention to an unconstitutional order and arrest,” Staver said.
However, Howard-Browne wrote in a statement Thursday that in response to the antagonistic climate, the church will be closed on Sunday.
— Rodney Howard-Browne (@rhowardbrowne) April 2, 2020
“We do not make this decision lightly. This is Palm Sunday,” he wrote. “We are entering the time of year that is most important to Christians around the world in which we remember and celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
He added that the church did not have ulterior motives for holding service when it did.
“We did not hold church to defy any order; nor did we hold church to send a political message. We did not hold church for self-promotion or financial motives, as some have wrongly accused,” Howard-Browne wrote.
“We held church because it is our mission to save souls and help people, and because we in good faith did everything possible to comply with the Executive Order.”
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