Hillsborough pastor arrested for violating rules amid coronavirus outbreak
Photo via River of Tampa Bay

Rodney Browne
Pastor Rodney Browne not only encouraged partitioners to attend services, he offered transportation.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister secured a warrant for the arrest of a Brandon pastor who has been refusing to cancel church services with his large congregation.

Chronister and his deputies had warned Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne that he was breaking federal, state and local rules regarding large gatherings by continuing to hold services at his River of Tampa Bay church.

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 individuals and Hillsborough County implemented a countywide safer at home order last week closing nonessential businesses that were unable to maintain the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing, which the church was not following.

Chronister said he did not make the decision to charge Howard-Browne lightly. He praised the ability of faith to provide comfort to people in times of stress and crisis.

“But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely,” Chronister said during a Monday press conference with State Attorney Andrew Warren, who helped facilitate the arrest warrant.

At the time of the press conference, Howard-Browne and his attorneys were negotiating the terms of his surrender.

On Sunday, Howard-Browne held two large church services — one in the morning and one in the evening.

Chronister had been in communication with Howard-Browne, church leaders and the church’s legal team to try to educate rather than arrest, but Howard-Browne continued to defy state and county orders barring large gatherings.

“Instead they encouraged people to come and gather at church. They even provided bus transportation for the services,” Chronister said.

“Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshipping,” Chronister said. But he added, “the safety and well-being our community must always come first.”

Chronister lamented Howard-Browne’s actions for putting his parishioners and the community they interact with at risk.

The Church issued a March 18 statement backing up its decision to continue holding services.

“We feel that it is very important, at this time, that we keep our doors open for anyone who needs prayer or ministry and to make ourselves available to minister hope and healing and comfort to them,” the church offered. “We are the Body of Christ and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe God‘s Word to us, which says to trust Him and to not be fearful but to have faith in Him. We are praying — as are our fellow Christians around the world — and we know that God answers prayers.”

Asked whether Howard-Browne’s arrest would mean services at the church next Sunday would be canceled, Chronister said he hopes so.

“We’re hoping that this serves a deterrent,” Chronister said. “We are hopeful that this will be a wake-up call for him, his legal staff and his leadership at his church.”

Howard-Browne is being charged with two second degree misdemeanors — unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.

The church has defended its decision, arguing they are protected under the First Amendment. However, public health emergency declarations are protected constitutionally to protect health and public safety.

Warren added that he hoped the arrest would also serve as a reminder that, even though county officials would rather use education than punishment, enforcement is an option.

“You risk being arrested and prosecuted,” Warren said.


Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].


  • Thomas Knapp

    March 30, 2020 at 3:18 pm

    Chronister, Warren, and their accomplices need to be arrested and charged under US Code Title 18, Section 241 (conspiracy against rights) and 242 (deprivation of rights under color of law).

    After all, we’re a civilized society. Just stretching their necks without due process wouldn’t be According to Hoyle.

    • True Liberty

      March 31, 2020 at 5:29 am

      Oh heck, What’s some rights of people believing in god when the government destroyed the rights of millions of people being able to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. I bet when we enter a Great Depression millions are suffering and all the people we were trying to save can’t be fed because we have destroyed the economy many who approved this strategy will have turned to churches asking how we got here.

      • Pedro

        March 31, 2020 at 7:50 am

        I really wouldn’t want to have to depend on this church though!

  • Marlene

    March 30, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    That’s a ridiculous comment. No one is above the law. And, (apparently unless you’re Donald tRump), flaunting the law has consequences.

    • Thomas Knapp

      March 30, 2020 at 3:30 pm

      Correct. No one is above the law. And the “Supreme Law of the Land” — the US Constitution — says that the state may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. Those US Code provisions just outline the penalties for doing so. Chronister and Warren are not above the law.

      • Pedro

        March 31, 2020 at 8:11 am

        So your saying the constitution is contradictory?

        • Thomas Knapp

          March 31, 2020 at 8:31 am

          No, exactly the opposite. The Constitution is 100% on this idiot pastor’s side, without contradiction. Nobody has to like it. That’s how it is whether anyone likes it or not.

  • Dan

    March 30, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    The Tyrannical heathens believe our Bill of Rights do not exist at their whim. The Right to Assemble and the Right to worship are not out weighed by the socialists of the Sheriff’s Office. Boss Hog does not have the authority to over turn the U.S. Constitution, even though he may think so. It violates their civil rights and State Attorney Andrew Warren& County Sheriff Chad Chronister needs to be criminally prosecuted and removed from office.

    • Marlene

      March 30, 2020 at 3:35 pm

      No one is being prohibited from practicing their religion. They being prohibited from congregating while doing so. Read some books when you’re done cleaning your guns.

      • Ed V

        March 30, 2020 at 4:15 pm

        And what about the right of the people peaceably to assemble?

        It would be nice if articles such has these cited case law instead of just attorneys opinions. If the authority exists for acts such as this then there must be case law to provide guidance from times of past events.

        • Marlene

          March 30, 2020 at 5:08 pm

          If you, Danny, and Tommy, knew anything about the law, you’d know that no constitutional right is absolutely guaranteed. Every right is limited. For example, your kind wants to keep me from having an abortion, even though I have the right to privacy and to decide what I want to do with my own body. You also can’t can’t shout “fire” in a crowded building, even though you have a right to free speech. You also can’t buy most military weapons, even though you have the right “to bear arms.” Since the beginning of our country, our TRIPARTATE government has seen fit to place limitations on constitutional rights for the good and safety of the country. The right to assemble absolutely can be limited anytime the government decides there is a “clear and present” danger.

          So, like I said before, open a book sometime when you’re done cleaning your AK47s. If not, then maybe go hang out and have some beers with your friends, but make sure you sit close to one another.

          • Thomas Knapp

            March 30, 2020 at 5:13 pm

            “your kind wants to keep me from having an abortion”

            Why would I care whether you have an abortion?

            Certainly, the Constitutional guarantees of rights aren’t absolute. For example, freedom of religion doesn’t include a right to sacrifice unwilling humans on the altar.

            It does, however, include the right to peaceably assemble.

            You don’t have to like it. That’s how it is whether you like it or not.

            I also don’t own an AK-47. What do I own? None of your business, that’s what.

          • Ed V

            March 30, 2020 at 5:41 pm

            Ok Marlene you and I seem to agree on one thing. Reading is fundamental. Unfortunately though you preach it well, you practice it poorly.

            I simply asked a question. Further, I said it would be nice if these articles included case law instead of just someones ill informed opinion. See how this works? I gave no opinion and asked a question so I could learn more about the subject. You chose to ignore what I wrote and instead to fill in the blanks to match your preconceived ideological beliefs and then launch your hate filled attacks.

            I fully understand rights are not without some limitation. These are narrowly defined in scope and have case law which provides legal guidance on the limitations. Yelling fire is covered in case law which allows for fire to be yelled if there is an actual fire. Firearms are covered in case law which allows for a difficult to get permit to own a fully automatic rifle. This arrest may be covered in case law too I don’t know which is why I asked the question. However I know of no case law that supports your opinion to a clear and present danger precedent which would be germane.

            In the future, please refrain from making assumptions about other peoples beliefs, motivations or level of education and then attacking them instead of engaging with them. It simply makes you sound narrow minded, petty and ignorant.

  • Cogent Observer

    March 30, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    Pastor–If you wish to live in your fantasy life, that’s fine for you and your immediate family. But in the face of science, illness, and sometimes resulting death, please don’t suck others into this silliness. I don’t like government intrusion into private life either, but you are being a jerk and endangering the lives of people you profess to care about. Find something productive to do.

    • Ed V

      March 30, 2020 at 4:20 pm

      Each and every member of his church has free will and made the decision for themselves if they wanted to attend the service or not. What about all of the adults that ignored the sheriffs on site warnings and attended anyways? If the preacher was arrested then shouldn’t all of the adults who attended be arrested too?

  • Marlene

    March 30, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    So much for the “pro-lifers.” Guess that only applies when they’re interested in governing our wombs.

  • Lynne Sapp

    March 30, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    “We feel that it is very important, at this time, that we keep our doors open for anyone who needs prayer or ministry and to make ourselves available to minister hope and healing and comfort to them,” the church offered.

    Followers of Christ can pray without the large assembling of members;
    they can minister hope and healing without the large assembling of members;
    and, they can comfort each other without the large assembling of members.

    • Thomas Knapp

      March 30, 2020 at 4:17 pm

      And you can have an opinion without saying it or publishing a newspaper, but the Constitution says the government doesn’t get to stop you from saying it or publishing a newspaper.

      What you WON’T find in the Constitution is any provision for suspending it any time some politician declares an “emergency.”

    • Ed V

      March 30, 2020 at 4:22 pm

      And what about the right of the people peaceably to assemble?

      • Pedro

        March 31, 2020 at 8:05 am

        I don’t believe they were peaceably assembling when they consume the virus and spread it unnecessarily.

        • Thomas Knapp

          March 31, 2020 at 8:24 am

          And you’re entitled to YOUR religious superstitions too.

        • Ed V

          March 31, 2020 at 9:59 am

          They were not peaceful really? So they violently assaulted the deputes that were there? Threatened to do bodily harm to someone? Were they carrying bats and chains? Do tell Pedro!

  • Cogent Observer

    March 30, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    Irrespective of, although maybe due to, using the moniker “Pastor,” this is the guy who poured the Kool-Aid for the sheep.

  • Ed V

    March 30, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    If a man convinces four other men to rob a bank with him and the five of them get caught in the bank while robing it, who gets arrested? Does the leader go to jail and the other four go home?

    If one man starts a drug business and ends up with sixty other people working for him in a drug lab and the DEA raids their lab, who gets arrested? Does the leader go to jail and the other sixty go home?

    So why does only the pastor get arrested and every other adult at the service get to go home?

    Political theater.

    • Thomas Knapp

      March 30, 2020 at 5:02 pm

      “So why does only the pastor get arrested and every other adult at the service get to go home?”

      Because the only ones breaking the law are the people making the arrests.

  • David McCallister

    March 30, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    There has always been an outside limit to Constitutional rights. Abortion, Speech, Assembly included. With religion, there is a series of cases involving snake handling and peyote use.
    I know this is controversial, but theologically, I would suggest that the more fundamental in Christianity one gets, the less emphasis there is upon periodic corporate ritual (eg. High Mass or Communion) and more on preaching- which can be done by internet, TV, radio, etc. The counter-argument is the need for “revivals” of the tent sort, but these have somewhat fallen out of favor. And- anyone who has read or seen the movie “Elmer Gantry” knows that safety measures must be observed, even there.
    Prayer of St. Chrysostom: “…Whenever two or three are gathered in thy name…” Not ten. Not 100’s. And – keep six feet apart.
    Actually, this is a win-win for both Browne and Chronister. Browne gets to be a martyr =St Peter; Chronister gets to be law & order =Caesar.
    Bring back the Flagellants of 1350!

    • Thomas Knapp

      March 30, 2020 at 6:45 pm

      “Browne gets to be a martyr =St Peter; Chronister gets to be law & order =Caesar.”

      Hopefully it works out differently — Browne gets to be a laughingstock and pariah forever, Chronister gets to be Inmate #BR549 at FCI Mariana for a little while. Everybody wins!

  • Timothy Gormley

    March 31, 2020 at 12:55 am

    Without reasonable doubt or question, the congregation was a public safety hazard and a real threat. I personally believe that the pastor is a reckless idiot.

    However, it must also be noticed that when people are scared and threatened, due process and constitutional protections are invariable damaged.

    Understood that there is some balancing. Those who are not willing to tilt the scales, at least somewhat, in favor of the personal freedom of another identify themselves as too unfamiliar with the rarity of this freedom among human civilizations in time and space.

Comments are closed.


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