Last week, evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for continuing to pack people into his Tampa megachurch even though local officials warned him it would violate a stay-at-home order intended to slow the spread of coronavirus. Days later, Florida’s governor wrote in an economy-size loophole to a statewide stay-at-home order allowing churches to hold services. Despite this, Browne’s church will stay shuttered this weekend, mainly because the church’s insurer wants no part of this nonsense.
Since March, dozens of churches have called off in-person services after concluding that no amount of safety measures will be enough to limit the risk of someone catching coronavirus. Howard-Browne has been one of the few holdouts. He continued to hold services at his church, The River of Tampa Bay, preaching to packed houses. Moreover, Howard-Browne claimed that any attempts to tell pastors to call off in-person services amounted to a demonic trick.
On Thursday, Hillsborough County, home to Tampa, issued a countywide stay-at-home order that took effect the following day. However, Howard-Browne not only carried on with his regular schedule of three services on Sunday morning, but bused people in so they could attend. Less than 24 hours later, Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister and state’s attorney Andrew Sullivan sought and won an arrest warrant charging Howard-Browne with unlawful assembly and violating public safety orders.
Howard-Browne was arrested and booked without incident on Monday afternoon, and made bail hours later. Soon afterward, he retained the services of Christianist law firm Liberty Counsel, which has close ties with the ministry network founded by the late Jerry Falwell, Sr.
In a statement, Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver–the former dean of Liberty University’s law school–contended that Howard-Browne was the target of discrimination. He claimed that the order specifically allows businesses to operate as long as they can keep people six feet apart–and that his new client complied with that requirement.
However, as Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist discovered, this statement is false. Footage from the Sunday morning services shows that The River didn’t even begin to comply with social distancing standards. Mehta got a clip; watch here.
Howard-Browne also claimed to have used a medical-grade system to kill coronavirus microbes. But as Mehta noted earlier, if that’s true, why haven’t the rest of us heard about such a machine? And why isn’t he sharing it with the rest of us?
These little details weren’t enough to stop Staver from wringing his hands at how Howard-Browne’s arrest was a sign that tyranny was rearing its head, and the First Amendment was effectively being shredded. Far from it, Mat. This is a “time, place and manner” stipulation that applies to all gatherings, secular or otherwise.
On Thursday, Howard-Browne announced he was calling off all services for the following Sunday in order to protect his flock from “the antagonistic climate” stirred up since his arrest. This came even after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis carved out an economy-size loophole for churches that allows them to circumvent a stay-at-home order he issued just 24 hours earlier.
The order bans all mass gatherings of 10 or more people, but at the same time declared religious services to be an “essential activity.” On Thursday, DeSantis issued a memo that declared his memo would “supersede any conflicting action or order” at the local level–effectively giving the green light for churches to meet with no restrictions on how many people can come. This move had local officials shaking their heads. For instance, Hillsborough County Commission chairman Les Miller said, “Our hospitals better get ready.”
So why is Howard-Browne keeping his church doors closed even though DeSantis effectively cleared the way for him to reopen? Well, Staver may have let the reason slip while declaring victory to Liberty Counsel’s Facebook followers–this whole affair left The River without an insurer. Watch here.
Staver crowed that all churches in Florida could now meet with no restrictions on size, and Texas and Indiana had carved out similar exemptions. But then Staver revealed that Howard-Browne’s “unbelievable and outrageous arrest” on Monday resulted in, among other things, “the cancellation of insurance by the (church’s) insurance carrier.”
It’s hard not to blame that insurer for cutting and running in this situation. Since this pandemic mushroomed, there has been story after story about outbreaks of coronavirus that can be directly tied to church functions. Many of these occurred despite the churches taking every precaution in the book and urging people to stay home if they didn’t feel comfortable.
The message is obvious–this virus has spread to the point that it is simply not worth the risk to hold in-person services. Apparently The River’s insurer realized this. It’s not unreasonable to assume that company officials repeatedly told Howard-Browne that his course was reckless, and that his arrest gave the insurer the legal cover it needed to drop him.
Despite DeSantis’ inexplicable move, there hasn’t been an influx of churches announcing they’re throwing their doors open on Sunday. Apparently they know that if even one person catches this disease and it can be traced back to a church gathering, it won’t matter whether or not that church was committing a crime. The public outcry would be more than that church and the insurer would be able to withstand. After all, the bar for acceptable behavior is set higher than the bar below which you go to jail.
Under the circumstances, it’s hard to believe that any reputable insurance company would want to go anywhere near Howard-Browne or his church, no matter what DeSantis and Staver may say. Whoever decided to drop Howard-Browne and effectively keep his church doors closed deserves a medal.
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