Church's 'unlawful assembly' lands pastor in jail

Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Jody Brown, Steve Jordahl (

pastor in the pulpitA Florida pastor was arrested for meeting with his congregation on Sunday in a county with restrictions on large gatherings – an arrest the pastor's attorney describes as "discriminatory against religion and church gatherings."

It wasn't "business as usual" for The River Church in Tampa on Sunday. Yes, the service included worship songs and prayer; but family groups were separated by six feet – more or less – in several venues, they were greeted at the door with greeters wearing masks and gloves, hand sanitizer was distributed to each person who entered, and the air inside the church was being pushed through a $100,000 purifier meant to strain out viruses like COVID-19.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne explained to his congregation why it was important that they met. "Just so you know, we are totally covered by the law. Somebody [asked], 'Well, what law are you covered by?' The First Amendment of the Constitution," he explained to applause.

But on Monday, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister held a press conference announcing an arrest warrant for Pastor Howard-Browne. "He was also violating a safer-at-home order which went into effect on March 27, advising Hillsborough County residents to remain in their homes as much as possible," the sheriff offered.

Officials with the sheriff's office reportedly had met with church leaders ahead of Sunday's services to warn them of endangering the congregation. "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.

But attorney Mat Staver of Florida's Liberty Counsel argues that given the law and the precautions the church took, they should be allowed – even under restrictions – to meet.


"This is a direct assault on the Church and [on] churches," says Staver, "and they're trying to terrify and discriminate, frankly, against meetings that are religious in nature."

On its website, the church argues that numerical restrictions on the number of people who can gather "are completely arbitrary in nature":

"There has been no tested nor proven scientific or medical data to show us what 'number' of people that congregate together are a danger to society. The number has varied from place to place and moment by moment. Somewhere it's 50, other places its 10 and there are still other variations. When politicians assign an 'acceptable' number of people allowed in a private church, they are reducing our right to Freedom of Religion to a first come, first served privilege."

According to the Liberty Counsel founder, many state and local governments are taking liberties with the Constitution. "What we're seeing are a number of governmental tyrants that are frankly just printing off these executive orders without being constitutionally vetted, without even being debated," he argues.

As the attorney told Fox News: "The sheriff and Hillsborough County will get a lesson on the Constitution and discriminatory application of the law."

Pastor Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities on Monday, and was released less than an hour later after paying a $500 bond.


We moderate all reader comments, usually within 24 hours of posting (longer on weekends). Please limit your comment to 300 words or less and ensure it addresses the article - NOT another reader's comments. Comments that contain a link (URL), an inordinate number of words in ALL CAPS, rude remarks directed at other readers, or profanity/vulgarity will not be approved. More details





Do you agree the virus pandemic has impacted our constitutional rights?





Memorial Day weekend draws crowds and triggers warnings
Slowly, surely, US houses of worship emerge from lockdown
White House imposes coronavirus travel ban on Brazil
Israel’s Netanyahu attacks justice system as trial begins
Desperate Indian girl bikes 745 miles home with disabled dad
Hong Kong police fire tear gas, water cannon at protesters
Taliban, Ghani declare three-day cease fire for Eid holiday


Sen. Rick Scott: Bill of Rights allows Americans to worship at church service, no matter what gov't leaders say
Will Trump order sanctions on China's president for Hong Kong crackdown?
Beto O’Rourke mocks Texas governor’s reopening message – then hears back from Crenshaw, Cruz
Opinion — Newt Gingrich: On Memorial Day, we have a duty to honor Americans who died defending our country
Trump to attend Wednesday's NASA astronaut launch in Florida


Cartoon of the Day
The virus crisis – a time to share Jesus … and to be ready

coronavirus outbreak mapA Bible teacher, author, and radio host thinks this situation with the coronavirus may be the greatest evangelistic opportunity of our lifetimes.