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Tampa Pastor Arrested for Violating Public Health Emergency Order During COVID-19 Pandemic

03-31-2020
Image source: Liberty Counsel
Image source: Liberty Counsel

Law enforcement officials arrested the pastor of a Tampa, FL, megachurch on Monday for violating a safer-at-home order that was put in place to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself into authorities Monday afternoon in Hernando County, where he lives. 

He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. Bail was set at $500, according to the jail's website, and he was released after posting bond.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a news conference Monday that he negotiated with Howard-Browne's attorney to turn himself into authorities in Hernando County.

"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 claimed. 

The megachurch pastor isn't alone in refusing to curtail in-person worship services despite public health orders designed to stop the virus from spreading. Churches in Ohio, Kentucky, and Louisiana have continued to invite worshippers in recent days as at least a half-dozen states offer some degree of exemption for faith in their orders to shutter nonessential activity during the pandemic.

Chronister said his staff met with The River at Tampa Bay Church leaders about the danger they are putting themselves and their congregation in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing, but services were held anyway. 

The county and governor's orders require gatherings, including those held by faith-based groups, to be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of COVID-19.

On March 18, the church called its ministry an essential service, just like police and firefighters, and said it would keep its doors open. 

In a Facebook video Sunday, Howard-Browne said, "It looks like we're going to have to go to court over this because the church is encroached from every side."

Liberty Counsel, the Christian legal firm representing Howard-Browne, said the Tampa order has 42 paragraphs of exceptions and another paragraph that further exempts any business that can comply with a six-foot separation.  

According to the law firm, the church did comply by protecting people in several ways, 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 that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the coronavirus family.

Some question whether it's a violation of the US Constitution, namely religious liberty, for the federal government to order churches to close during a health emergency.

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But others, like Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, see the answer differently.

In a recent article published on his website, Moore writes, "The short answer is 'no'."

Moore noted the question is a reasonable one.

"Nothing that is happening right now related to this crisis is, in my view, a violation of religious liberty or the separation of the church from the state," he wrote. 

"Our commitment to religious liberty is grounded in what Jesus taught us—that the spheres of the church and the state are different, and the one should not have authority over the other. The state has the 'power of the sword,' for instance, to punish criminals and to maintain civic order (Rom. 13:1-7), while the church does not (1 Cor. 5:9-12). The church has the authority to proclaim the gospel and to define the boundaries of the fellowship within that gospel, the state does not," Moore added. 

Moore explained the situation facing the country right now "is not a case of the state overstepping its bounds, but rather seeking to carry out its legitimate God-given authority."

The president of the ELRC goes even further, describing the government's responsibility in "the protection of public health—where the state has not just a legal authority but an authority granted by God himself."

Moore said the issue is a clear public objective the federal government is pursuing - stopping the transmission of a dangerous virus at gatherings. This applies to all organizations, not just churches. Meetings, fairs, shows, public events, all have been canceled to deter the spread of the coronavirus. 

"Governments are seeking to limit gatherings of people. That is a legitimate public interest, and the government is seeking to do so in the least intrusive way possible," he explained. 

In summary, Moore says the concern for public health is not a violation of religious liberty, so as people of faith, we should obey and pray like never before. 

"Let's not only obey the laws of our states and cities, let's seek to do even more than asked in order to shoulder our responsibilities. Let's wash our hands, stay as far apart as necessary, pray for our medical personnel and our leaders, and let's pray, like never before. In so doing, we render what is due both to God and to Caesar. And that's a good start," he concludes. 

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