TAMPA, Fla. — An arrest warrant for Tampa Bay pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was issued Monday, and the pastor was taken into custody after the sheriff said the church violated a countywide “safer-at-home” order.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the River at Tampa Bay Church violated the county’s order related to large gatherings and social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic. A live stream from the church on Sunday showed the building packed with worshippers.
When Chronister saw images from a crowded Sunday service at the church posted online, he was furious.
“We received an anonymous tip that Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne refused a request to temporarily stop holding large gatherings at his church,” he said. “And instead, he was encouraging his large congregation to meet at his church.”
Hours later, the sheriff along with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, filed a pair of charges against Howard-Browne, including unlawful assembly.
Chronister said it was a “reckless disregard for public safety.”
Chronister said Howard-Browne refused requests to stop gatherings at the church and even encouraged people to meet at the church. Chronister said the pastor “put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk,” and in turn thousands of Tampa Bay residents in danger.
Hillsborough County issued a “safer-at-home” order effective March 27. Under the order, businesses that are considered essential must be able to operate under the CDC’s social distancing guidelines, keeping employees and customers six feet away from each other. If they can’t do that, they must shut down.
“The safety and wellbeing of our community must always come first,” Chronister said.
The church’s response was to describe itself as an essential service even though houses of worship have not been given that designation.
The church said it’s important for it to give people who need prayer a place to go for healing or comfort. A statement the church made earlier this month on Facebook said it is doing everything in its power to sanitize and clean surfaces and take other measures to keep the community safe.