Sheriff: Tampa Megachurch Pastor Arrested After Breaking COVID-19 Rules
Despite warnings that he would be violating rules against large gatherings, he held Sunday services attended by hundreds, Hillsborough deputies say.
TAMPA – The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Monday (March 30) arrested a local pastor who “intentionally and repeatedly hosted church services with hundreds of members in attendance, despite knowing he was in violation of orders set in place by the president, the governor of Florida, the CDC and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group.”
Dr. Rodney Morgan Howard-Browne, 58, pastor of the River at Tampa Bay Church, was charged with one count each of Unlawful Assembly and Violation of Public Health Emergency Rules. Both are second-degree misdemeanors.
“I believe there is nothing more important than faith at a time like this, and as a sheriff’s office, we would never impede on someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister, “but practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.”
The church issued a statement on its Facebook page on March 18 explaining its stance. The statement said in part: “In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients. We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The Church is another one of those essential services. … Therefore, 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, more than ever before. Even people who do not attend church regularly, or perhaps never go to church, need to know that there is somewhere for them to go when they need help.”
Chronister said the sheriff’s office contacted church leaders Friday (March 27) after receiving an anonymous tip that Howard-Browne had refused requests to temporarily stop holding large gatherings at his church. Instead, the pastor was encouraging his congregation to continue to meet in person.
His actions were a direct violation of Executive Order 20-05, which went into effect on March 20, limiting gatherings, including faith-based gatherings, to fewer than 10 people. Chronister said Howard-Browne was also violating the Safer-At-Home Order, which went into effect on March 27, advising Hillsborough County residents to remain in their homes as much as possible to create greater social distancing and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
On Friday, and again on Sunday, (March 29), sheriff’s personnel and legal staff spoke with attorneys representing the church to try educating them on the orders in place and the dangerous environment they were creating for their members and the community. Neither the pastor nor his church leaders heeded the warnings.
“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. “The River at Tampa Bay has an advantage over most places of worship, because they have access to technology that allows them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast television for the more than 4,000 members to watch from the safety of their homes.”
Howard-Browne hosted services in his church with hundreds of people at 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday and provided bus transportation to the church.
Because of his disregard for public safety after repeated requests and warnings, HCSO worked with State Attorney Andrew Warren to obtain a warrant for Howard-Browne’s arrest Monday. Howard-Browne was arrested at his home in Hernando County around 1:30 p.m.
“Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well being of our community must always come first,” Chronister said.
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