Police have arrested Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne after he refused to close the doors of his Tampa, Florida, megachurch. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister detained the pastor and charged him on two counts of unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules.
Howard-Browne had refused to close his megachurch, which has 4,000 members, saying that he wouldn't shut the doors until the End Times began.
Chronister said that he and the department's lawyers have repeatedly urged Howard-Browne to close the church, but on Sunday, the pastor "did not make himself available" to talk, and a warrant was issued.
"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk," Chronister said at a press conference, "as well as put thousands of residents who may interact with them in danger."
One of Howard-Browne's lawyers, Mat Staver, issued a statement on Monday challenging the county's stay-at-home order. Staver also said that the church had adhered to safety guidelines by giving attendees hand sanitizer and having family groups sit six feet apart from each other.
"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," Staver added. "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."
In a Facebook Live stream before his arrest, Howard-Browne also defended his actions by stating: "I'm not again negating that people are dying from the coronavirus. We're not saying that, just saying that the thing is blown totally way out of proportion and if you shut the church down, the church is not a non-essential service."
In a further statement, the church claimed that closure orders violated religious freedom.
"The government deciding who can attend a service by way of a numerical limit does not demonstrate an equality of rights and ought to be seen as a per se violation of the principle of separation of church and state," the church wrote on its website.
"These orders try to justify unequal application based upon the definition of 'essential' services. By what authority does the government declare the church non-essential? The Church is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community, more than ever before."
State Attorney Andrew H. Warren appeared to dismiss this claim on Monday, saying: "It's unfortunate here that the pastor is hiding behind the first amendment." Warren went on to call the county's order "constitutionally valid."
"I would remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31," Warren said. "There is no more important commandment than to love your neighbor as yourself. And loving your neighbors is protecting them and not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus."
The best way to prevent contracting or spreading coronavirus is with thorough hand washing and social distancing. If you feel you may be experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, which include persistent cough (usually dry), fever, shortness of breath, and fatigue, please call your doctor before going to get tested. For comprehensive resources and updates, visit the CDC website. If you are experiencing anxiety about the virus, seek out mental health support from your provider or visit NAMI.org.