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TAMPA — Megachurch Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne and the River at Tampa Bay Church had been warned.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous tip that the pastor planned to hold services Sunday in violation of county orders asking residents to stay home and limit gatherings to slow the coronavirus. Sheriff’s officials said they warned church lawyers on Friday and Sunday about the “dangerous environment they were creating for their members and the community.”
But Howard-Browne, the self-proclaimed “Holy Ghost bartender” and COVID-19 conspiracy theorist, ignored those warnings. He held two large services on Sunday, deputies said, and even bused people in to the church at 3738 River International Drive.
The church live-streamed the morning “Main Event” service on its Facebook page, showing congregants shoulder-to-shoulder while the church band played.
That’s why Howard-Browne was arrested Monday on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency, said Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.
“Because of the reckless disregard of public safety and after repeated requests and warnings, I worked with our state attorney, Andrew Warren, to obtain a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors,” Chronister said. “Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first."
Chronister and Warren held a news conference Monday announcing the charges before the pastor was in custody. That day, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases across Florida surged past 5,700.
Warren then took to the lectern and quoted the Bible.
“I’d remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31, which said there’s no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself,” Warren said. “Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”
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Howard-Browne, 58, was arrested at his Hernando County home and booked into the county jail there at about 2:20 p.m., records show. He was freed about 40 minutes later after posting $500 bail. He will have to appear in Hillsborough County court to answer the charges but no date has been set yet.
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Howard-Browne is originally from South Africa, where at age 5 he said he committed his life to Christ. Eventually he and his family settled in the bay area, buying a house in the gated New Tampa community of Cory Lake Isles. He quickly gained fame for high-energy productions and the “holy laughter” of his congregants, who danced wildly in the aisles.
In more recent years, he joined evangelical leaders who met with President Trump and laid hands on him during a 2017 Oval Office meeting. The pastor also promulgates many right-wing conspiracy theories.
Most recently, at a March 22 sermon, the pastor said the coronavirus pandemic was a “phantom plague” created by the Chinese but also somehow planned at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation event, according to Right Wing Watch.
Howard-Browne is being represented by another rightwing organization, Liberty Counsel, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says promotes discrimination against the LGBTQ community. In a statement issued after the arrest, Liberty Counsel said the church enforced the 6-foot rule, staff wore gloves and had spent $100,000 on a “hospital grade purification system.”
“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,” said Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver.
Right Wing Watch on March 27 posted a video of Howard-Browne explaining that $100,000 system:
“The Lord has helped us secure our congregation,” the pastor said. “We have brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place. If someone walks through the door, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze it shoots it down at a 100 mph. It’ll neutralize it in split-seconds.
“So we have the most sterile building, I don’t know, in all of North America.”
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The county’s order, which took effect Friday, requires gatherings, including those held by faith-based organizations, be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus. The order also requires residents to stay at home unless they are getting food or medicine, exercising or doing essential work that cannot be performed at home.
State law allows the order to be enforced as a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail, a maximum fine of $500 or both. Hillsborough officials have said the penalties for non-compliance would likely begin with warnings and fines.
Howard-Browne addressed the issue during the 3½-hour livestream of the Sunday morning service, which started with nearly an hour of music performed by the church band.
“No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling, no weapon formed against them," he said at the start of the sermon, quoting Bible scripture. The crowd cheered and applauded. In some places, congregants appeared to be standing and sitting with an empty chair between them.
“Of course, we’ve got what they call social distancing in here in this room and there’s people in other places and whatever, but we’re glad you came today,” he said.
Church officials did not respond to phone and Facebook messages from the Tampa Bay Times.
Later in the morning, Howard-Browne tweeted that the news media was “stirring up religious bigotry and hate” and claimed the church was shot at Sunday night.
That claim is unfounded, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said, noting that deputies were stationed at the church all night.
In a statement released on March 18, church leaders signaled they considered church an essential service like police and fire departments and hospitals.
The statement said the church “is doing, and will do, everything in our power to support the efforts of our wider community by cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and take any other recommended measures to protect our people and keep them healthy and safe.”
“If anyone is either not feeling well or would prefer to take the precaution of remaining at home for their own health, we encourage them to do that and to continue to watch the services online,” the statement said.
Chronister said his legal staff and members of his command staff, including Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski, went to the church on Sunday to try to meet with Howard-Browne to explain that attending church in person is not an essential exemption under the order.
“It was that important to try to emphasize the education phase of this safer at home order,” the sheriff said.
Howard-Browne did not make himself available but church leaders and legal staff said they were refusing to cancel the Sunday evening service.
“Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this church for forcing us to do our job," Chronister said. "That’s not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency.”
Warren said it’s “unfortunate” that Howard-Browne is “hiding behind the First Amendment.”
“For one, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid,” Warren said. “Second of all, leaders of our faith community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing.”
To drive that point home, Warren and Chronister had Bishop Thomas Scott of the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa talk about how his church has temporarily halted services at the sanctuary, opting instead to stream them on line.
“The Bible instructs us to obey the laws of the land,” Scott said.
Times staff writer Kavitha Surana contributed to this report.
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