Tampa pastor arrested for holding church services despite 'safer at home' order

Arrest comes as churches grapple with quarantines
Posted at 11:10 AM, Mar 30, 2020

As churches across the country grapple with how to balance worship and quarantine, a Tampa-area pastor has been arrested for holding services and violating a county "Safer At Home" order.

In a country founded on the principles of freedom of speech and religion, the choice between worshipping and quarantining isn't easy.

Local governments around the country are urging Americans to stay at home and avoid large social gatherings to limit the spread of COVID-19. Despite those orders, several larges churches around the country opened their doors to hundreds of people.

In Florida, The River at Tampa Bay Church remained open Sunday to the public despite a "Safer At Home" order issued by the county — an order that includes places of worship. While the church is encouraged sick parishioners to stay home and view services online, the church said in a statement that it felt obligated to stay open.

"We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace," the church said in a statement. "The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty. Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time."

On Monday, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office arrested the church's pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne. He's charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order.

"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk, and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger," Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said.

The River wasn't the only large church to hold services on Sunday. In Turtlecreek Township, Ohio — just north of Cincinnati — Solid Rock Church has held in-person services the last two Sundays, despite a "Stay At Home" order from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

Ohio's order does not give guidance to specifically to churches, though it does ban "gatherings of any size."

Solid Rock Church — a megachurch known for their large statue of Jesus that can be seen from the nearby interstate — addressed criticism of their decision to hold services on their Facebook page.

"As Christians, we are charged by Jesus Christ to obey the laws of our land. Therefore, if the laws of our nation should ever change with respect to our First Amendment right to assemble, thereby restricting us from having our church doors open, we will willingly comply," the statement read. "If there has ever been a time in the history of our world when we all need God's help, it is now. For that reason, we believe that the doors of Solid Rock Church should remain open.

Solid Rock's decision stands in stark contrast to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, who, on March 17, announced it was suspending all masses at its churches in the area through at least April 5. In the Vatican, Holy Week masses will take place but will be closed to the public.

Still, other churches have ways to remain open while not holding in-person services. Dozens of churches across the country have gone completely online during the coronavirus pandemic, including Media City Church in Los Angeles.

"Our mission doesn't change, just because of whatever is currently in the headlines or whatever we're facing culturally together as a society. We just adapt," Pastor Billy Calderwood told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. "Communicating good news to people. Keep people encouraged. Keep people focused on the things that matter most. And keep people reminded that God is for them and God is with them."