Tampa — Scores of worshipers gathered at a Tampa megachurch for service on Sunday, drawing a warning from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office about violating the safer-at-home order in place to limit the spread of coronavirus.
A live stream on the River at Tampa Bay Church’s Facebook page showed congregants gathered for its Sunday morning “Main Event” service led by Pastors Rodney and Adonica Howard-Browne. The three-and-a-half-hour stream started with nearly an hour of music performed by the church band.
“No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling, no weapon formed against them,” Rodney Howard-Browne said at the start of the sermon, quoting Bible scripture. The crowd cheered and applauded. In some places, congregants appeared to be standing and sitting with an empty chair between them.
“Of course, we’ve got what they call social distancing in here in this room and there’s people in other places and whatever, but we’re glad you came today,” Rodney Howard-Browne said.
Within hours, the Sheriff’s Office contacted the church to inform leaders the service had been held “in direct violation of the President’s guidelines for America, recommendations made by the (Centers for Disease Control) and orders from the Governor and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group,” according to a statement the Sheriff’s Office released
The county and governor’s orders require gatherings, including those held by faith-based organizations, be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.
“The Sheriff’s Office has advised church leaders of the danger they are putting themselves and their congregation in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing at a time when COVID-19 cases are unfortunately still on the rise in Hillsborough County,” says the statement released Sunday night.
The statement said Sheriff’s Office attorneys were in touch with church attorneys.
“We are working to determine how compliance can be achieved to keep the public safe under these extraordinary conditions, and we hope to resolve this matter quickly,” the statement said.
State law allows the order to be enforced as a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail, a maximum fine of $500 or both. Hillsborough officials have said the penalties for non-compliance would likely begin with warnings and fines.
“I know that they’re trying to beat me up, you know, having the church operational, but we are not a non-essential service,” Rodney Howard-Browne said at the start of the Sunday morning sermon. He claimed the church is “covered by the law.”
“Not only the right of free speech but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe,” he said.
“Suddenly we are demonized because we believe God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some sort of kooks.”
Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp tweeted Sunday that “many people” had contacted her about the service and that she had been in touch with Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.
In a statement released on March 18, church leaders signaled they considered church an essential service like police and fire departments and hospitals.
“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 statement said. “We believe God‘s Word to us, which says to trust Him and to not be fearful but to have faith in Him.”
The statement said the church “is doing, and will do, everything in our power to support the efforts of our wider community by cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and take any other recommended measures to protect our people and keep them healthy and safe.”
“If anyone is either not feeling well or would prefer to take the precaution of remaining at home for their own health, we encourage them to do that and to continue to watch the services online,” the statement said.
Announcing the arrest of Dr. Ronald Howard-Browne, Pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church, who intentionally and repeatedly disregarded state and local public health orders, which put his congregation and our community in danger. pic.twitter.com/1gERVdzyIp
— Chad Chronister (@ChadChronister) March 30, 2020
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