As the coronavirus pandemic rages through this country, it has been amply established that holding large gatherings of any sort is simply reckless at this point. In much of the country, it is also illegal. A number of states, counties and cities have banned large gatherings in an effort to “flatten the curve” and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. Simply put, anyone holding a large gathering is endangering the public. Period, full stop.
Unfortunately, at least one megachurch pastor didn’t get the memo. Namely, Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River of Tampa Bay in Tampa. Howard-Browne is best known for his role in making “holy laughter” a household word in evangelical circles. In recent years, he has become infamous for peddling a bushel of conspiracy theories. He claims that the bombings in Austin and the mass shooting in Christchurch were false flags. He has also claimed–without evidence–that someone was plotting to attack Donald Trump.
Lately, however, Howard-Browne has gone on a course that isn’t just wrong, but dangerous. Even as dozens of churches have opted to switch to online-only services to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Howard-Browne has obstinately refused to call off in-person services. Indeed, he has gone as far to argue that any concerns about endangering the public by continuing to hold in-person services are outweighed by the need to avoid giving up ground to the enemy.
This context is needed to understand what happened on Sunday morning, when Howard-Browne held a full schedule of services. This came even after Hillsborough County, home to Tampa, issued a “stay-at-home” order that took effect on Friday. Among other things, it bans all gatherings of 10 or more people, as well as almost all non-essential travel outside the home.
But that order, as well as all concerns about endangering the public, appeared to go in one of Howard-Browne’s ears and out the other. Watch coverage from WTVT in Tampa here.
Before a packed house, Howard-Browne claimed that his critics were “trying to beat me up” over continuing to hold in-person services. In a statement, church leaders claimed that they needed to stay open because its members were “fearful and in need of comfort and community.”
Um, Rodney? You can easily meet those needs online, without endangering the people of Tampa Bay. Your church certainly has the resources to do livestream-only services. My church in Charlotte isn’t even a fraction of your church’s size, and we’ve been livestream-only since mid-March. Indeed, my pastors have specifically said they’re doing this to maintain a sense of connection in a time of forced disconnection.
Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister and state’s attorney Andrew Sullivan struck fast and hard less than 24 hours later. On Monday afternoon, they announced that they had obtained a warrant for Howard-Browne’s arrest on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violating public safety orders. Watch Chronister and Sullivan make the announcement here, via WTVT.
Chronister said despite repeated warnings against doing so, Howard-Browne not only continued to hold in-person services, but also bused people in so they could attend church. He and Sullivan could not allow this “reckless disregard for public safety” to stand, and decided to have Howard-Browne arrested. Chronister said that he has been in talks with lawyers for Howard-Browne, who lives in Hernando County, north of Tampa. They are trying to arrange his surrender.
Sullivan reminded Howard-Browne of Mark 12:31, which says that “there’s no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself.” He argued that loving your neighbors does not mean endangering them “by exposing them to this deadly virus.”
Even though these are only misdemeanors, the fact that Chronister and Sullivan are drawing a line in the sand should send a message to any other pastor who is willing to continue on this course. That means people like Tony Spell, the United Pentecostal pastor who is defiantly holding services at his Baton Rouge church despite a statewide ban on mass gatherings in Louisiana.
The strongest protections afforded under the First Amendment do not and should not protect a church that is recklessly endangering the public in this way. For that reason, Howard-Browne shouldn’t just be facing criminal charges. If–God forbid–anyone catches coronavirus as a result of being in contact with a member of his church, he and his church ought to be sued out of existence.
Indeed, even the religious right law firms who would usually come to a church’s defense in matters like these don’t appear willing to touch situations like this with a 10-foot pole. Liberty Counsel, for instance, issued an FAQ that correctly states such orders are legal as long as they are “content-neutral and do not target religion.”
Let’s be clear. Any decent-sized church that is still holding in-person services at this point may not just be breaking laws that are based on precedent written in blood. More importantly, they are violating every standard of basic decency and common sense that is known by endangering the public in this way.
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