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.