Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church, was arrested at his home today by Hernando County Sheriff Deputies for holding a church service yesterday. The church is located in Hillsborough County, Florida. Hillsborough County has issued administrative orders addressing meetings and social distancing, which will be addressed below.
Pastor Howard-Browne and his wife founded the church in 1996. He also heads Revival Ministries International. He was born in South Africa and has resided in Tampa, Florida since the mid-1990s.
Liberty Counsel has agreed to represent Pastor Howard-Browne, who was taken into custody today. As the arrest was unfolding, the Hernando County Sheriff Chad Chronister held a press conference announcing the arrest. During the press conference, State Attorney Andrew Warren quoted the Bible in Mark 12:31 (“There is no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself”). Sherriff Chronister also invited Bishop Thomas Scott to speak, who engaged in a theological lecture about what the Bible says on this issue while disagreeing with Pastor Howard-Browne.
On March 20, 2020, Hillsborough County issued an administrative order restricting all “public or private gatherings, including community, civic, public leisure, faith-based events, sporting events, concerts, and any similar events that bring together more than 10 people in a single room, single space, or any venue, at the same time…” The order exempted, among other things, “shelters.” The order does not modify the word “shelters,” which is an exceptionally broad word.
Last Friday, March 27, Hillsborough County issued a “Safer-at-Home” administrative order that contains 42 paragraphs of exceptions, including “religious personnel.” Following this long list of exceptions, the same order adds another huge exception: “Businesses which are not described in paragraph 3, and are able to maintain the required physical distancing (6 feet) may operate.” (emphasis added). Paragraph 3 is the section with 42 paragraphs of exceptions. Paragraph 5, quoted above, stated if a “business” is not mentioned as exempted but is able to comply with the six (6) feet separation may operate.
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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 quoted above in paragraph 5.
Pastor Howard-Browne and the church took extra precautions for the church meeting yesterday, 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.”