A 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.
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