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Florida pastor charged with unlawful gathering

by Harvest Prude
Posted 3/31/20, 11:13 am

Authorities in Tampa, Fla., did not like what they saw on Sunday on The River church’s worship service livestream: a sanctuary full of congregants. Police arrested Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne on Monday for violating an order to limit gatherings to 10 people because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But the church and its attorneys say the livestream didn’t show the safety measures in place such as placing family groups 6 feet apart in the auditorium, having staff members wear gloves, giving each attendee hand sanitizer, and using a $100,000 air purifying system.

Was the church within its rights? Liberty Counsel, the religious liberty law firm representing Howard-Browne, said the Tampa order discriminated by giving commercial businesses, but not churches, broad exemptions to social distancing orders, including an exception for any business that can enforce 6 feet of separation between people. Howard-Browne was released on bond less than an hour after his arrest on Monday.

Dig deeper: Read Steve West’s report in Liberties about how the coronavirus pandemic affects freedom of worship.

Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this report since its initial posting.

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Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

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  • AlanE
    Posted: Tue, 03/31/2020 03:16 pm

    While we can agree that the regulations governing businesses in these times are a decidedly patchwork affair, this is really not a battle the church wants to fight. Nobody, but nobody, likes to see other folks thinking they're too good for the regulations imposed on society as a whole. And that's exactly what this looks like. Our faith does not rise and fall on meeting in large numbers and close proximity in a time of pandemic, but our message might.

  •  CaptTee's picture
    Posted: Tue, 03/31/2020 03:52 pm

    The week before, my church did the same as this church. This week a stage was set up in the parking lot for a "Drive-In Church" with designated parking spots to keep family groups apart. We also livestreamed services. We are in another part of Florida and got no harrassment from local "Authorities".

    Could the difference be that our county votes Republican and Tampa votes Democrat?

    Our faith does not rise and fall on meetings, but our Republic will not last if we appease tyrants, even the local variety! If we don't stand up for our liberties now, when shall we?


  • AlanE
    Posted: Tue, 03/31/2020 09:06 pm

    Maybe if you make it clear that, by gathering together against stated policy, you're agreeing to forego access to public health resources, it would help. But, even at that, there are vectors of transmission in such meetings that don't end at the meetings. The less we infect people at a church service, the less those people infect others the other six days of the week.

    I suspect one week to the next makes a lot more difference in the reaction of the public authorities than who votes Democrat and who votes Republican. 

  •  CaptTee's picture
    Posted: Tue, 03/31/2020 03:31 pm

    Where are the people so concerned about "Separation of Church & State"?

    Who are the "Authorities"?  The people need to know for the next election.