The pastor of a mega Central Florida church who was arrested earlier this week after video showed services continuing despite the coronavirus outbreak says he will be closing the church’s doors – but blames the federal government, not the global pandemic, for the closure.
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne made the announcement Wednesday, saying he was doing so to “protect” his congregation.
“I have to do this to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from a tyrannical government, because all the charges against me are totally bogus,” Howard-Browne said according to NBC affiliate WFLA-TV.
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Howard-Browne added he was worried that if services were held at his River of Tampa Bay church, officials would raid them and members of the congregation would be arrested.
Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities Monday afternoon in Hernando County, where he lives. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. Bail was set at $500, according to the jail's website.
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a news conference Monday that he negotiated with the attorney for Howard-Browne to turn himself in after his command staff met with church leaders about the danger they are putting themselves — and their congregation — in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing.
“Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this staff 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."
The church said it sanitized the building, and the pastor said on Twitter that the church is an essential business. He also attacked the media for “religious bigotry and hate.”
The county and governor’s orders require gatherings, including those held by faith-based groups, be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of COVID-19. A live stream of Sunday's three-and-a-half-hour church service showed scores of congregants. In a Facebook post, Howard-Browne said coronavirus “is blown totally way out of proportion.”
On March 18, the church called its ministry an essential service, just like police and firefighters, and said it would keep its doors open.
In a Facebook video Sunday, Howard-Browne said “it looks like we're going to have to go to court over this because the church is encroached from every side.”
“This is really about your voice. The voice of the body of Christ,” he said.
As recently as last year, Howard-Browne's church hosted an event with Paula White Cain, who was named an advisor leading President Donald Trump’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. She's also an unofficial spiritual advisor to the president.