Does Ron DeSantis’ stay-at-home order allow megachurches to continue meeting? Looks like it
Photo via River of Tampa Bay

Rodney Browne
The order exempts religious services as an essential activity.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order Wednesday that will go into effect Friday, but it might have one glaring hole that would allow churches or other religious gathering places to continue to hold in-person religious services regardless of the number of people in attendance and without regard to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines.

The order exempts “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship.”

That loophole could be a potentially huge deal in Hillsborough County where a Brandon megachurch pastor was arrested this week for holding church services in violation of a local ordinance prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people, though at least one county official doesn’t see it being a problem and the language appears to allow local orders to maintain stricter guidelines than the state order.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and State Attorney Andrew Warren issued a warrant for Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne’s arrest earlier this week after he hosted a Sunday morning worship service with 300-500 partitioners despite “educational” outreach from the Sheriff’s office urging him not to and cautioning that such a gathering would violate the county’s safer at home order.

Howard-Browne later turned himself in and then bonded out of jail and is now back at home, potentially planning more services this weekend.

The Governor’s executive order supersedes “any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.”

The order originally specified that only provisions of local orders that allow “essential services or essential activities prohibited by this order” will be preempted.

Under that language, Hillsborough County’s more restrictive language regarding social distancing, including for religious services, would not have been preempted.

That was the interpretation from Warren’s office.

“The Governors’s order sets a baseline for appropriate social distancing but does not undo Hillsborough’s more restrictive standards and does not affect past violations of our local orders,” Warren told Florida Politics in a statement.

But DeSantis later issued a clarification preempting any conflicting local order regardless of whether it was more or less restrictive than the state order.

The statement also responded to an inquiry about whether or not Howard-Browne’s legal team could use the Governor’s executive order in defense of his previous arrest.

Chronister told Florida Politics Tuesday that rearresting Howard-Browne or closing his church altogether were potential options on the table. Warren’s analysis suggests that might still be viable.

Under the executive order, “a social gathering in a public space is not an essential activity. Local jurisdictions shall ensure that groups of people greater than 10 are not permitted to congregate in any public space,” which suggests church gatherings might have to be limited.

However, the order also specifically lists religious services as an “essential activity.” Further, while churches typically are open to the public, they are still privately owned and operated and their facilities located on private property.

County and city attorneys were all still reviewing the order before offering an analysis on how it affected Hillsborough County’s order.

However a private attorney, Charles Gallagher with the law firm Gallagher & Associates, believed the executive order does not prohibit religious services or limit attendance.

“Yes, I think that church services at a church or house of worship are permitted under this order,” Gallagher said after reviewing the order. “This absolutely protects religious services in [their buildings].”

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].


  • Sonja Fitch

    April 1, 2020 at 4:05 pm

    Fake Christians! Love one another. Not the fake preacher! Money money money money it’s all about the money. Not Christian good!

    • Peter Brannen

      April 5, 2020 at 2:39 pm

      If these church goers all agreed to stay together after their gatherings, not mix with ANYONE outside their group, then fine. BUT… don’t expect anyone from outside to put their lives at risk to help care for these selfish, ignorant people as the virus spreads through their ranks!

  • Thomas Knapp

    April 1, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    It’s not a “loophole.”

    It’s the First Amendment, which does not have an “unless enough people panic and screech about it” exception.

    • Flava Flay

      April 1, 2020 at 5:39 pm

      This old man is crazy!!

    • Terry

      April 1, 2020 at 5:59 pm

      Precisely sir. Inalienable rights that are endowed by our creator and protected by The Bill of Rights. I really worry that if people easily give up their right to practice religion, would those people be ok with giving up the other rights which are protected in the First Amendment? Freedom of speech? Freedom of the press? What other rights are we able to give up so easily after so many have fought and died to protect same.

      Amendment #1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

      • FL Girl

        April 1, 2020 at 8:01 pm

        No one’s asking you to “give up your right to practice religion”. Is your god found only in a building? Try looking in your heart.

        • Thomas Knapp

          April 1, 2020 at 8:04 pm

          You’re right: No one’s asking.

          They’re ordering.

          And that’s the kind of shit they get to pull in Pyongyang, not in Palm Beach.

          • Terry

            April 1, 2020 at 8:55 pm

            Precisely Mr. Knapp. On point!

          • Cam

            April 3, 2020 at 3:38 pm

            Make sure you don’t dare seek medical help for you or your loved ones when you can’t breathe. God will save you

        • Terry

          April 1, 2020 at 8:39 pm

          I don’t go to church. I believe in God and the oath that I took to uphold and defend the Constitution. If American wishes to worship God gave them that right to do it as they believe they should. I respect that and I would never tell you how you should worship. What right would you be willing to give up today?

        • Susan

          April 2, 2020 at 8:09 am

          Amen Live everyday with Jesus in your heart and love and light. A building is fellowship but church is your daily walk. Come on people… what in the world don’t you understand!!!! Stay at home. Church can be essential sitting on your couch watching it online. Grrrrrr

    • Charles Fulton

      April 1, 2020 at 10:45 pm

      Get infected in your church and then infect others in supermarkets. You selfish jackal.

      • Thomas Knapp

        April 1, 2020 at 10:53 pm

        “Selfish jackal” is an odd way of phrasing “person who can read.”

        I’m self-isolating and my church is holding its services via Facebook Live.

        That doesn’t change the fact that the Constitution is unambiguous on whether the government has the power to forbid religious assemblies. It doesn’t. Period.

  • DisplacedCTYankee

    April 1, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    Church is not goddamn “essential.” Food is essential. Oxygen is essential. etc.

  • Kurt

    April 1, 2020 at 7:46 pm

    I guess Darwin needed more proof…

  • Marc

    April 1, 2020 at 8:37 pm

    Nice racket. Exempt from taxes and other requriements, now exempt from health laws that affect everyone else. BTW, there are No Absolute Rights.

    • Thomas Knapp

      April 1, 2020 at 8:40 pm

      “health laws that affect everyone else.”

      Well, except that a declaration of dictatorship is not a “health law,” and it can hardly be said to affect “everyone else” since it includes exemptions for everything from walking your dog to working your delts to getting McDonald’s.

      • Marc

        April 2, 2020 at 1:13 pm

        Those other exemptions come with social distancing requriements unlike the churches and the others are at least attempting to lessen the impact. Claiming this is a “declaration of dictatorship” is ludicrous as is comparing these actions to something done in North Korea. And speaking of rights, the public institutions and individuals have the right to identify those who willfully break social distancing requirements,share that information and refuse them service.

  • Sam

    April 2, 2020 at 9:11 am

    So avoid the religious like plague? Got it.

  • C Civantos

    April 5, 2020 at 11:22 am

    Please sign this petition to end the exemption for religious services in Florida’s “Stay-at-home” order.

    • Thomas Knapp

      April 5, 2020 at 11:48 am


      The petition is an offer to participate in a conspiracy to violate rights in violation of 18 US Code 241.

      Each of its signers is, therefore, liable for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison — or, if anyone dies as a result of the conspiracy, the death penalty.

      Might want to think hard before signing on as a co-conspirator.

Comments are closed.


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