TAMPA — Prosecutors have dropped the charges against the Tampa pastor who held Sunday services despite county orders meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren filed notice Friday that it will not pursue the case against Pastor Tampa Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay Church. Howard-Browne had been charged with unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency.
In a statement, Warren said Howard Browne’s arrest “remains an appropriate step taken by law enforcement to immediately correct irresponsible behavior after repeated efforts to gain cooperation in other ways were not successful.”
“In deciding whether to criminally prosecute violations of stay-at-home orders, compliance is our North Star,” Warren said. “Each case is unique, and each one will be assessed based on the facts and the law. But, in general, if the person who was arrested poses no ongoing threat to public health, then our tendency will be not to prosecute the case beyond the arrest.”
Since the arrest, the statement said, Howard-Browne “has maintained responsible social distancing on his church campus while engaging with community leaders in a dialogue about the best path forward for his congregation.”
“Our office has determined that further prosecution or punishment would not provide increased protections for our community and is not needed to achieve any additional change in Pastor Howard-Browne’s behavior,” the statement said."
Warren joined Sheriff Chad Chronister at a news conference March 23, a day after Howard-Browne held Sunday morning and evening services at the Tampa church. Chronister said sheriff’s officials reached out to the church twice before the services to stress the importance of following county orders that limited gatherings to 10 people and required residents to stay at home except for essential tasks.
Instead, Chronister said, Howard-Browne held services anyway, showing a “reckless disregard” for the congregation and the public. Warren then took to the lectern at the news conference 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.”
Attorney Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel, which also represented Howard-Browne, released a statement Friday calling the Howard-Browne’s arrest “politically motivated.”
“Neither the pastor nor The River at Tampa Bay Church did anything wrong," Staver said. “The arrest and the press conference were outrageous and caught the attention of the nation and the world.”
Staver contended that Howard-Browne’s arrest prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to exempt churches, synagogue and other houses of worship in a statewide stay-at-home order released on April 1.
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“We are pleased that all the charges have been dropped,” Staver said. "It is now time to move forward with healing and restoration.”
Patrick Leduc, who also represented Howard-Browne, said Warren made the right call.
“The entirety of the county’s safer-at-home order is unconstitutional, it violated separation of powers and the delegation doctrine," Leduc said. "They arrested the pastor on an illegal order.”
Last month, Chronister met with Howard-Browne and his wife Adonica at their Hernando County home. Chronister said he was trying to be proactive and work with church leaders like the Howard-Brownes as the county worked to reopen.
“The State Attorney’s Office has recognized that compliance and not criminal punishment is the focus of our emergency health laws,” Chronister said in a statement released along with Warren’s. “Law enforcement’s intervention through arrest has been rare during this health crisis, and while it remains a necessary tool to protect the health and safety of our community, we agree that further criminal sanctions are not necessary in this instance."
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