Florida officials arrested a pastor after detectives say he held two Sunday services in Tampa with hundreds of people and violated a safer-at-home order in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the Associated Press reports. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities Monday afternoon. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said his staff met with The River at Tampa Bay Church leaders about the danger they were putting themselves and their congregation in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing.
“Shame on this pastor … for forcing us to do our job. That’s not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency,” Chronister said. “We are hopeful that this will be a wakeup call.” Liberty Counsel, representing the church, said, “Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding six-foot distancing, it went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people. Contrary to Sheriff Chronister’s allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was ‘reckless,’ the actions of Hillsborough Country and the Hernando County Sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings.” Churches in Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana have continued to invite worshippers as at least a half-dozen states offer some degree of exemption for faith in their orders to shutter nonessential activity during the pandemic.