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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Spreading the Word--And the Virus: Civil Rights Versus Public Health

     On March 25, 2020, the authorities in Hillsborough County, Florida issued an order, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that prohibited the gathering of more than ten people. At the time, Florida had more than 5,000 coronavirus cases.

     On Sunday, March 29, 2020, 58-year-old Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of the River of Tampa Bay Pentecostal megachurch, held two services in violation of the Hillsborough County COVID-19 group restriction law.

     That Sunday, Pastor Howard-Browne, on his Facebook livestream video broadcast, in open defiance of the Hillsborough County COVID-19 order, said, "I have to do this to protect the congregation not from the virus, but from tyrannical government."

     The day after the Sunday church services, and Howard-Browne's livestream broadcast, the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office issued a warrant for the pastor's arrest. Howard-Browne was charged with the misdemeanor offenses of violating a quarantine order during a public health emergency and unlawful assembly.

     After being taken into custody, the pastor posted his $500 bail and was released from custody.

     On Wednesday, April 1, 2020, on his livestream Facebook broadcast, the River of Tampa Bay pastor announced that the church would be closed until further notice. By now, there were 8,000 cases of COVID-19 in the state.

     On his April 1, 2020 livestream program, Pastor Howard-Browne, portraying himself as a crusading civil rights leader, called the criminal charges against him "bogus" and criticized Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister for "caving" to outside political pressure. Regarding his arrest and the closing of his church, the pastor said, "It will be on his [Sheriff Chronister's] record that he shut down a food ministry that feeds up to 1,000 families every week.

     Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was not the only religious leader to hold religious services in violation of a COVID-19 group restriction order. On April 5, 2020, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Reverend Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church, held Palm Sunday services. In response to being charged with violating the state's gathering ban, Reverend Spell said, "We don't get our rights to worship freely from the government. We get those from God. We'd rather obey God than man."

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