Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne is facing charges for refusing to close the doors of his Tampa church during a Stay at Home order. The sheriff said there were almost 500 people in attendance. The pastor has done this before and has equipment in place to guard against virus transmission. Religious freedom is one of the backbones of the United States, but the health of individuals also needs to be considered.
Endangering fellow Christians or exercising his rights?
Howard-Browne turned himself in once he discovered Sheriff Chad Chronister and State Attorney Andrew Warren had issued a warrant for his arrest. He was charged with unlawful assembly, violating public health emergency rules and quarantine. He was held for 40 minutes before posting a $500 bond.
The River at Tampa Bay Church is like many churches that might offer two Sunday services. Transportation and live streaming is also offered, with that day’s stream showing a packed house and a cheering congregation.
The Pastor has a record
Howard-Browne has done this before. Sheriff Chronister’s deputies have had to speak to him on a couple occasions about the “dangerous atmosphere” the church was creating. The pastor has refused to speak with the deputies and refused to cancel services.
“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,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a press conference Monday. “They have access to technology allowing them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast to their 400 members from the safety of their own homes, but instead they chose to gather at church.”
Attack on the First Amendment?
This could be seen as an attack on religious freedom, but churches nationwide are offering live streaming services. There are also many services on YouTube. The Sheriff’s concern is keeping the virus from spreading.
“I was appalled and also frightened at the fact that those individuals [were] thinking and believing they are doing the right thing. How many people are they going to infect if they have COVID-19?” Chronister wondered. “There is nothing more important than faith especially during a pandemic, but like every other church here in the Bay Area, do it responsibly.”
“I think it’s unfortunate that the pastor here is hiding behind the First Amendment,” State Attorney Warren offered. “One, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid. Second of all, leaders from our faith-based community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing.”
Is there a police state line being crossed?
First Liberty Institute in Texas sees this a little differently.
This is a hard adjustment for people to make but I think we have to make that adjustment,” said Jeremy Dys, First Liberty Institute’s Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications. “The state has to have a compelling justification, a compelling reason to say we are going to ask people of a certain size or gathering to stop meeting for a period of time temporarily.”
Dys mentioned the restrictions are temporary and across the board, not singling out religious organizations.
“Let’s figure out the best way we can go and work together to preserve religious liberty on the one side but also maintain the public health on the other side of things,” Dys said. “Those two can work together. They don’t have to work apart.”
Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s
When Chronister announced the arrest warrant he was joined by area church leaders. It’s important to point out quarantine has been done in the bible.
It was practiced by people,” he said. “The issue here is not religious freedom. Churches are not the ones being singled out. Everything is shut down. There is no basketball. There is no hockey. All of us our doing our part. I’m a pastor that believes God heals…this is not a faith issue. This is a responsible friend issue.”
Reverend Thomas Scott of 34th Street Church, a former chairman of the Board of County Commissioners and Tampa City Council member has been live streaming online and on Facebook.
“We value the importance of the laws of the land and we value the importance of social distancing, and more importantly, protecting our parishioners — make sure they are not in harm’s way and spreading this deadly disease throughout the community,” he said. ” To us, COVID-19 and social distancing is very important. It’s also important for the religious community to govern themselves, according to the laws of the land.”
Pastor Howard-Browne defended keeping the church open
“We brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place,” Howard-Browne said. “If they sneeze it shoots it down like at 100 miles per hour and it will neutralize it in a split second.”
This statement appears on The River’s website:
“We feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community.”
Howard-Browne’s attorney wasn’t happy with the charges, saying Amazon still operates while churches are shut down.
“Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding six-foot distancing, it went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people,” Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver stressed. “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.”
Liberty Counsel maintains hand sanitizer was available and families were separated from each other by six feet. Staff members were wearing gloves.
“This church has a concern, not only for the physical wellbeing of its participants and the community but also the spiritual wellbeing and that’s what this church has been trying to do,” Staver said. “They bought $100,000 worth of hospital-grade equipment they have established throughout the church that kills microbes including in the family of the coronavirus.”