(Reuters) - The pastor of a megachurch in Tampa, Florida, was arrested on Monday on charges of holding prayer services in violation of public health orders temporarily banning such gatherings to limit the spread of coronavirus infections, authorities said.
Rodney Howard-Browne, co-founder of the River at Tampa Bay Church, is accused of presiding over two services on Sunday attended by hundreds of parishioners, some of them ferried there by bus transportation his church provided, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said.
“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 told a news conference.
Howard-Browne, originally from South Africa, was arrested at his home under a warrant charging him with misdemeanor offenses of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, the sheriff’s office said later.
The emergency health orders limit public gatherings in the county to fewer than 10 people and require residents to stay at home except as otherwise necessary.
The Tampa Bay Times reported the preacher posted $500 bond and was released from jail shortly after he was booked on the charges, each carrying a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine if he were convicted.
Chronister said his office had contacted the church’s attorneys and its leaders at least twice over the weekend imploring them to cancel Sunday’s services at the Pentecostal church, to no avail.
The sheriff said Howard-Browne’s defiance was especially baffling because his 4,000-member congregation had the technology to broadcast its services live on both television and the internet.
Howard-Browne quoted biblical scripture in his own defense during Sunday morning’s 3-1/2-hour service, livestreamed on social media, declaring: “No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling, no weapon formed against them,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.
“Suddenly we are demonized because we believe God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some sort of kooks,” the newspaper quoted him as telling worshipers.
Members of the congregation, many standing shoulder to shoulder, although some apparently separated in church by empty seats, cheered and applauded his remarks, the Times said.
Chronister disputed Howard-Browne’s assertions that the public health orders in question exempted religious services as essential gatherings or that they trampled constitutional rights to freedom of religion.
“It’s unfortunate that the pastor here is hiding behind the First Amendment,” the sheriff said.
State Attorney Andrew Warren also cited scripture in supporting the sheriff.
“There’s no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself,” he said. “Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”
Nearly 5,500 people have tested positive in Florida for COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including more than 60 who have died.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney