Florida Megachurch Pastor Arrested After Defying Order Not To Hold Gatherings : Coronavirus Updates The county sheriff said Rodney Howard-Browne's "reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk." He has questioned the seriousness of the coronavirus threat.

Florida Megachurch Pastor Arrested After Defying Order Not To Hold Gatherings

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A megachurch pastor in Florida was arrested yesterday. His name is Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne. And he was charged with unlawful assembly for continuing to hold large worship services despite public health orders to close those gatherings down. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Howard-Browne is the co-founder and pastor of a church called The River at Tampa Bay. It's said to have 4,000 members. In recent days, he questioned the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, vowed to keep his church open until biblical end times and told his parishioners God will protect them. After local authorities issued a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, law enforcement officers visited his church to warn Howard-Browne that worship is considered a nonessential service. But the pastor refused to meet with them, and he went ahead with his services on Sunday.


RODNEY HOWARD-BROWNE: I know that they trying to beat me up, you know, but we are not a nonessential service.


GJELTEN: Speaking during the service, Howard-Browne told the hundreds who showed up not to worry because the law was on his side, specifically the First Amendment.


HOWARD-BROWNE: Not only the right of free speech, but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe.


HOWARD-BROWNE: You know, suddenly, we are demonized because we believe that God heals.

GJELTEN: Howard-Browne repeatedly insisted that his church members could expect supernatural intervention to keep them from getting sick. But authorities in the Tampa area were determined to show the ban on gatherings was to be taken seriously. Sheriff Chad Chronister, after consulting with a state attorney, announced that Howard-Browne faced arrest for intentionally and repeatedly disregarding emergency orders.


CHAD CHRONISTER: 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.

GJELTEN: Chronister said the goal is not to stop anyone from worshipping. But the safety and well-being of our community must always come first, he said. A short time later, the pastor turned himself in and was taken into custody. He spent about 40 minutes behind bars but was then freed after posting bail. The charge he faces is a second-degree misdemeanor.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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