On Monday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office arrested Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church for 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.
“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 Sheriff’s Office made contact with leaders at the River at Tampa Bay Church on Friday, March 27, following an anonymous tip that Pastor Howard-Browne 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 less than 10 people. He 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, Sheriff’s Office personnel and legal staff spoke with attorneys representing the church in an attempt to educate 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,” said Sheriff Chronister. “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.”
Pastor Howard-Browne hosted services in his church with hundreds of people at 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday and even provided bus transportation to the church.
Howard-Browne was arrested on two second degree misdemeanors for Unlawful Assembly and Violation of Public Health Emergency Rules.
On Monday, Liberty Counsel announced they agreed to represent Pastor Howard-Browne.
They note that Amazon, which has a large operation in Rustin located in Hillsborough County, and other businesses have continued to operate either under a specific exception in paragraph 3, or the catch-all exception in paragraph 5.
Pastor Howard-Browne and the church took extra precautions for the church meeting Sunday, including:
- Enforced the six-foot distance between family groups in the auditorium as well as the overflow rooms;
- All the staff wore gloves;
- Every person who entered the church received hand sanitizer;
- In the farmer’s market and coffee shop in the lobby, the six-foot distance was enforced with the floor specifically marked (farmer’s markets and produce stands are expressly exempted);
- The church spent $100,000 on a hospital grade purification system set up throughout the church that provides continuous infectious microbial reduction (CIMR) that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the Coronavirus family.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like swiss cheese. The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt or exempt if they can comply with a six-foot separation. Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation. The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body. Neither the Constitution nor Florida law protecting churches and the free exercise of religion disappear. This order from Hillsborough County is not narrowly tailored to achieve its underlying objective.”
Staver continued, “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. 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.”
Staver concluded, “I was shocked that Sheriff Chad Chronister held his press conference before the arrest was completed. I am astounded that Sheriff Chronister used his press conference to lecture about the Bible. This is entirely inappropriate for a government official to takes sides on religion.”