The first known U.S. arrest of a pastor for holding church services amid the COVID-19 pandemic occurred March 30 in Tampa, Fla., when Rodney Howard-Browne, 58, was booked on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. He’s the pastor of the River at Tampa Bay megachurch and he and his congregation had been warned earlier by sheriff’s officials about the “dangerous environment they were creating for their members and the community,” reported the Tampa Bay Times.
Instead, Howard-Browne held two large services March 29 and even offered to bus people to the church, where it live-streamed the three-hour “Main Event” service on its Facebook page, showing congregants shoulder-to-shoulder while the church band played.
He joined evangelical leaders who laid hands on President Trump during a 2017 Oval Office meeting and has promulgated conspiracy theories about the pandemic, including that it was planned at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation event. He’s being represented by the Liberty Counsel, a right-wing legal group.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, a Republican, said at a press conference that he ordered the arrest “because of the reckless disregard of public safety and after repeated requests and warnings” were ignored.
Two days later, Howard-Browne said in a social media livestream that he would not open the church for Palm Sunday services April 5. “I’m doing this to protect the congregation,” he said, then added he was protecting them from a “tyrannical government,” not the coronavirus.
Louisiana pastor charged
A Pentecostal pastor in the Baton Rouge suburb of Central, La., was charged with six counts of violating Gov. John Bel Edwards’ emergency order barring gatherings of over 10 people, and later arrested for almost backing his church bus into a protester.
Mark A. “Tony” Spell, 42, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, drew about 1,000 people to services March 22, in part by bussing people in from five parishes. He also had been holding services on Tuesdays. Spell told CNN that response to the pandemic is “politically motivated.”
After being charged, Spell vowed to hold services again and said, “[I]f I am arrested, the second man in charge will step in. If he is arrested, the third man in charge will step in. If he is arrested, the thousands of people who are members of this congregation are gonna step in, but you can’t take us all.”
The next night, hundreds of parishioners, young and old, packed the church and were monitored from outside by law enforcement and media, WAFB-TV reported. On Easter Sunday, reports from various sources say more than 1,300 people filled his church, despite the governor’s order.
On April 19, police say Spell was charged with aggravated assault in connection to the church bus incident that was caught on tape, according to NBC News.