A Florida pastor has been arrested after holding services at his church in defiance of guidelines from authorities in the Tampa area, which order citizens to remain at home as reported coronavirus cases surge in Florida.
WTSP reported authorities in Hillsborough County issued an arrest warrant for Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne Monday after Sheriff Chad Chronister saw images of a live-streamed service at the River at Tampa Bay Church.
Sheriff Chronister reportedly became furious at the images, which showed a packed congregation at the church on Sunday. The sheriff’s office also said the church offered bus services to and from the church Sunday.
“We received an anonymous tip that Pastor Dr. Ronald (sic) Howard-Browne refused a request to temporarily stop holding large gatherings at his church,” the sheriff said at a press conference. “And instead, he was encouraging his large congregation to meet at his church.”
Chronister said the church services were a “reckless disregard for human life,” putting the members of the congregation and those they might interact with at risk.
“The safety and wellbeing of our community must always come first,” Chronister added.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office joined Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren in filing charges against Howard-Browne — including a charge for “unlawful assembly” and another for “violation of public health emergency rules,” WTSP reported.
The pastor turned himself in after a warrant for his arrest was issued.
On March 27, county officials issued a “safer-at-home” declaration, which asked citizens to stay home and practice social distancing in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The sheriff defended his actions, condemning the pastor for hosting regular church services.
“I believe there’s nothing more important than faith during a time like this. And as a sheriff’s office we would never impede someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort,” Chronister said.
“But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely,” he added.
The River at Tampa Bay Church, meanwhile, is pushing back and has described itself as an essential service.
“In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients. We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace.
“The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty.,” the church wrote on Facebook.
“We hope and trust that all media outlets would be able to hear from the President and his medical advisors and properly and correctly report the information and advice given by them. And to resist the temptation to report in such a way as to exacerbate people’s panic, fear, and anxiety,” the church added.
Howard-Browne accused media outlets of “stirring up religious bigotry and hate” on Twitter Monday.
Media stirring up religious bigotry and hate … the church was shot at last night …. keep up the good work! https://t.co/KVJCwS3mE9
— Rodney Howard-Browne (@rhowardbrowne) March 30, 2020
The Florida pastor’s arrest came three days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to permanently close churches and synagogues that hold services during the coronavirus pandemic.
Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested after holding services Sunday at his Tampa megachurch despite public orders urging residents to stay home to help contain the spread of coronavirus https://t.co/r0Du5vBarr pic.twitter.com/PqkPkNi8aa
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) March 30, 2020
Howard-Browne faces a punishment of up to 60 days in jail and fines totaling up to $500.
The Bradenton Herald reported he posted bond Monday and was released from jail shortly after his arrest.
The River at Tampa Bay Church has a congregation of roughly 4,000 people, The Bradenton Herald reported.
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