Megachurch pastor arrested for holding services despite coronavirus restrictions

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne is leader of Revival International Ministries and River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, Florida(Photo: Facebook/River at Tampa Bay Church)

A megachurch pastor in Florida has been arrested after officials said he was continuing to hold services at his church in defiance of restrictions on gathering in large numbers.

Officials said Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, leader of Revival International Ministries and The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, has been charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. 

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister told reporters that he was furious when he saw images shared online purporting to be a packed service at the church. 

"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."

Mr Chronister questioned why the megachurch was not utilising technology to livestream its services over the internet and TV, despite having these at its disposal. 

"Instead, they encouraged people to come and gather at the church, even provided bus transportation for the services," he said. 

"Our goal is not to stop people from worshipping, but the safety and wellbeing of our community must always come first.

"It's a shame that someone has taken advantage of this. For whatever reason, I just don't understand it. The only reason I can see is it's a reckless reason – to put your parishioners in jeopardy."

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne said that his arrest is in violation of the First Amendment and that the church's ministry is an essential service. 

A number of orders have been issued in the area in recent weeks to curb freedom of movement and assembly in a bid to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

On March 20, county officials issued an administrative order restricting all "public or private gatherings, including community, civic, public leisure, faith-based events, sporting events, concerts, and any similar events that bring together more than 10 people in a single room, single space, or any venue, at the same time". 

Then last Friday, a "Safer at Home" order was issued, although religious personnel were listed in the exceptions, according to Liberty Counsel, which is representing the pastor. 

On Monday, after the pastor's arrest, a state-wide "Safer at Home" executive order was imposed by Governor Ron DeSantis.

The pastor's arrest comes as a new poll revealed that around a fifth of Americans are still heading out each week to take part in public worship services despite the coronavirus pandemic.

In the survey of 1,038 Americans, the vast majority - 88% - said that their places of worship had closed or services had been suspended. 

But 17% said they were still taking part in public worship, while 22% said they had even been "encouraged" to do so by their church "because of the virus".