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Tampa pastor arrested for defying virus orders closes church due to ‘tyrannical government’

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for violating public health emergency orders. He’s closing his church — but not because he changed his mind about the dangers of the coronavirus.

TAMPA — The megachurch pastor who was arrested for holding two large church services in defiance of Hillsborough County’s emergency coronavirus orders said Wednesday that he will shut his church down for now.

But Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne said he’s not doing it to shield anyone from the pandemic.

“I have to do this to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from tyrannical government,” said Howard-Browne, 58, speaking on a live video broadcast on Facebook to nearly 2,000 viewers.

Howard-Browne is the pastor of the River of Tampa Bay Church, a pentecostal megachurch at 738 River International Drive, and a COVID-19 conspiracy theorist. Despite warnings from authorities, he held two large Sunday services on March 29 and even bused people to the church. A live-stream of one service event showed people standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

Related: Pastor of Tampa church that held two large Sunday services arrested, jailed
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne leads Sunday morning service at the River at Tampa Bay Church on March 29. The pastor was arrested for violating the county's emergency public health orders. Now Howard-Browne says he will close the church. [ Facebook ]

The events violated a Hillsborough County coronavirus order that requires gatherings, including those held by faith-based organizations, to be limited to 10 or fewer people. The pastor also violated the county’s “safer-at-home” order requiring residents to stay at home unless they are getting food or medicine, exercising or doing essential work that cannot be performed at home.

So the next day, the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s office issued a warrant for Howard-Browne’s arrest on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency. The pastor was arrested Monday in Hernando County, where he lives, and quickly freed after posting $500 bail. His case will be decided in Hillsborough County court.

In Wednesday’s Facebook broadcast, the pastor said his church would remain closed until further notice, but promised an “epic Sunday morning classic River service” online. A food ministry will still operate, he said.

But he remained defiant. He called the charges “bogus” and criticized Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister for “caving” to outside pressure.

“It will be on his record that he shut down a body of Christ, shut down a food ministry that feeds up to 1,000 families every week,” Howard-Browne said.

Related: Florida coronavirus deaths pass 100 as cases rise by more than a thousand

Before the arrest, the sheriff noted that River of Tampa Bay Church was well-equipped to broadcast its services online, an option many other houses of worship have chosen and that the pastor already uses.

On the Sunday those services were held, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Florida approached 5,700. When the pastor spoke Wednesday, those cases approached 8,000 and the state’s death toll passed 100.

After Howard-Browne’s arrest, calls for shutting down businesses and socially isolating to slow the coronavirus have only grown stronger. The White House on Tuesday extended its social distancing recommendations until the end of April. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday finally issued a statewide stay-at-home order — one that still allows people to attend religious services.

However, Hillsborough’s top prosecutor issued a statement to the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday saying the governor’s order does not override tougher local orders or affect the pastor’s arrest.

ß“The governor’s order sets a baseline for appropriate social distancing but does not undo Hillsborough’s more restrictive standards and does not affect past violations of our local orders,” said the statement from Warren.

Related: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issues statewide stay-at-home order

Rodney-Browne, the self-proclaimed “Holy Ghost bartender,” is not shy about generating publicity for himself or promoting rightwing causes and conspiracies. In Wednesday’s video, he portrayed himself as a patriotic, culture-wars fighter.

“I got arrested because I stood up for the Constitution of the United States,” he said. “To be honest with you, I actually feel like i became an American on Monday and paid the price.”

He has the support of Hillsborough County Republican Party officials, who have taken to social media to defend the pastor and question the severity of the pandemic.

Howard-Browne is being represented by a 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.”

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

Related: Hillsborough GOP backs pastor Rodney Howard-Browne after arrest

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