TAMPA, Fla. — The Bay area pastor arrested after holding highly-attended church services on Sunday says his first-amendment rights are being violated.

  • Tampa pastor arrested after holding highly-attended church services
  • Gathering violated safer-at-home orders, issued due to coronavirus outbreak
  • Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order
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Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne is accused of violating Hillsborough County's "safer at home" order as well as social distancing guidelines and recommendations made by the Centers For Disease Control.

Howard-Browne, the pastor at the Brandon-area River at Tampa Bay Church, turned himself in to authorities Monday afternoon in Hernando County, where he lives. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order.



During a live web event Monday night, Howard-Browne spoke for more than three hours on the arrest with his main point being church is an essential business.

"I think personally now that the shutdown has been extended till the end of April, I think it is going to get even crazier," he said, without going into specifics. "How in the world do you shut down a church? A church is not again, I'm going to repeat.  as long as you can keep Lowes open and Walmart and Costco, just every other place and you go in there, and talk about social distancing.  it's just insane."



In a statement from earlier this month, church leaders said they felt they were an essential service and would be keeping their doors open. And on Sunday, Howard-Browne said to the congregation: "I know that they’re trying to beat me up, you know, for having the church operational, but we are not an non-essential service."

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister advised church leaders of the danger they are putting themselves and their congregation in by not following the guidelines. 

Chronister says his legal team met with Pastor Browne’s representatives twice and told them they would be in violation of those orders.

The two services Sunday brought hundreds of people into close contact with each other. 

That prompted the sheriff's office to post an electronic billboard outside the church to remind everyone about social distancing. 

It is unclear if Howard-Browne will hold on-site services this upcoming weekend.  

In 2019, Howard-Browne claimed his church cleansed Florida of the Zika virus and in an online video in February, he claimed it would do the same for coronavirus. 

"We disturbed and declared and we cursed that thing in the name of Jesus and Zika disappeared," Howard-Browne said in the video post.

"And we are doing the same thing with coronavirus.  

"We don’t need this on the shores and obviously somebody said 'well what about the rest of the world?'  Well, I can't be responsible for every city.”