Pastor arrested for defying coronavirus orders says he will suspend church services for now

Rodney Howard-Browne(Photo: Facebook/River Church)

The Florida pastor arrested for defying restrictions put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus has agreed to suspend public services at his church for now. 

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, leader of Revival International Ministries, continued to hold services at The River, the church he leads in Tampa Bay, despite a 'safer-at-home' order banning large gatherings.  

But after the authorities received a tip off about a service held at the church last Sunday, the pastor was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at the time of his arrest that the pastor had been "reckless" in continuing to hold public worship. 

Howard-Browne has since agreed to suspend services at the church but has appointed Liberty Counsel to defend him in a legal challenge over his arrest.

In a Facebook broadcast on Wednesday, the pastor said: "No one's expecting me to make this announcement but I actually have no choice.

"What people don't know is from Monday I actually shut the whole church down. I shut the ministry down.

"And so we probably had no more than nine people there at any time, just with the essential services from the food ministry. ... So there's been nothing there the whole week." 

The decision was made despite Florida Governor Ron DeSantis the same day reclassifying attending religious services as an essential activity, meaning that it is exempt from restrictions on movement. 

In a statement released through Liberty Counsel on Thursday, Howard-Browne said that the church would remain closed this Sunday. 

"As my wife and I prayed about what we should do this weekend, we have decided to close the church for this upcoming Sunday service, for the protection of our people in this antagonistic climate, in large part created by media hype and misrepresentations, which have undoubtedly been exacerbated by Sheriff Chronister's exaggerated and outright false accounts of the situation," he said.

"We do not make this decision lightly. This is Palm Sunday. We are entering the time of year that is most important to Christians around the world in which we remember and celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." 

He continued: "We did not hold church to defy any order; nor did we hold church to send a political message. We did not hold church for self-promotion or financial motives, as some have wrongly accused. We held church because it is our mission to save souls and help people."

He added: "At this point, we believe it is prudent to take a pause by not opening the church doors this Sunday. This will allow an opportunity for people to take a deep breath and calm down." 

In one video broadcast on Facebook earlier this week, Howard-Browne claimed to have received death threats and said that the church has been shot at following his arrest.

He said that keeping churches open during the pandemic was a First Amendment issue. 

"We have forced a national debate on the subject of the First Amendment," he said.

"Again, it's not about a virus. It's about the church being an essential service to the community, where the church can meet and take care of the people." 

He added: "I'm not ashamed to be arrested for the First Amendment of the United States."