A Florida pastor learned Monday that his defiance of a county ban on gatherings of more than ten people was not something the local sheriff was willing to tolerate.
Rodney Howard-Browne, co-founder and pastor of the River at Tampa Bay Church, held worship as usual on Sunday, even encouraging his members to attend. By the next morning, a warrant had been issued for his arrest, and a few hours later he was taken into custody.
"Our goal is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first," said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, explaining his decision to issue an arrest warrant for Howard-Browne.
"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger," Chronister said.
Howard-Browne subsequently turned himself and was put in jail. About 40 minutes later, he was released on bail.
The pastor had repeatedly questioned the seriousness of the coronavirus threat and made clear he had no intention of suspending services at his church, which is said to have 4000 members.
Even after the sheriff's office warned him that religious worship did not qualify as an "essential" service, and that holding services could subject him to arrest, Howard-Browne encouraged members to attend and offered to provide bus transportation.
"I know that they're trying to beat me up," Howard-Browne told the several hundred worshipers who attended his church on Sunday, "but we are not a non-essential service."
The order against worship services violated "not only the right of free speech but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe," Howard-Browne claimed.
State Attorney Andrew Warren said it was "unfortunate" that Howard-Browne was claiming a First Amendment right to proceed with the worship service.
"I'd remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31, which said there's no more important commandment than to love they neighbor as thyself," Warren said. "Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health as exposing them to this deadly virus."