Sheriff arrests pastor of Tampa megachurch for holding services

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Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church, was arrested Monday after holding crowded services in defiance of government officials amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Hernando County)

A number of churches continue to push back against restrictions being placed by local government officials on people’s movement and right to assembly during the coronavirus outbreak.

At least one pastor has been sent to jail.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida was booked into a local jail on March 30 on charges of unlawful assembly and violating Hillsborough County’s stay-home order, the Tampa Bay Times reports. He posted bail within an hour.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office got an anonymous tip that the pastor planned to hold services Sunday in defiance of county orders for residents to limit gatherings to fight the coronavirus.

Sheriff’s officials said they warned church lawyers over the weekend about the “dangerous environment they were creating for their members and the community.”

But Howard-Browne ignored those warnings. He held two large services on Sunday, deputies said, and even bused people in to the church on River International Drive. The church live-streamed the morning service on its Facebook page, in which congregants appeared gathered shoulder-to-shoulder while the band played.

That’s why Howard-Browne was arrested Monday on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly during a public health emergency, said Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.

“Because of the reckless disregard of public safety and after repeated requests and warnings, I worked with our state attorney, Andrew Warren, to obtain a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors,” Chronister said. “Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”

Howard-Browne, 58, was arrested at his Hernando County home and booked into the county jail there at about 2:20 p.m., records show. He was freed about 40 minutes later after posting $500 bail. He will have to appear in Hillsborough County court to answer the charges but no date has been set yet.

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