Florida pastor arrested for holding services in violation of coronavirus restrictions

A pastor of a Florida megachurch was arrested Monday for defying public health orders aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus by leading two services with hundreds of congregants, authorities said.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne held the services Sunday at The River at Tampa Bay Churches despite county and state mandates limiting gatherings to less than 10 people, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister announced in a news conference.

Chronister said members of his office even met with church leaders before Sunday, informing them of the potential health risks posed by not complying with social distancing orders.

“Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this staff for forcing us to do our job,” Chronister said.

“That’s not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency. We are hopeful that this will be a wake up call.”

The law firm representing Howard-Browne, Liberty Counsel, alleged the enforcement amounted to religions discrimination.

“Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding six-foot distancing, it went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people,” the law firm said.

Liberty Counsel also said the church made sure staff wore gloves and provided hand sanitizer to everyone who entered.

A live stream of Sunday’s three-and-a-half-hour church service showed a packed house of congregants.

Howard-Browne earlier this month downplayed the coronavirus outbreak, mocking the “pansies” who are scared of the bug. He also insisted his church would only shut its doors “when the Rapture is taking place.”