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A pastor at a large church in Florida was arrested on Monday after leading packed services on Sunday that allegedly defied social distancing measures that were put into effect to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which originated in China.
Pastor Howard-Browne, 58, was arrested in Hernando County and charged on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. He was released roughly an hour later after posting bond.
“The River at Tampa Bay Church held two services Sunday … and even offered bus transportation for those services,” Fox 13 Tampa Bay reported. “The church’s livestream showed a packed crowd cheering and applauding.”
Sheriff Chad Chronister said during a press conference that the church had access to technology that allowed them to broadcast their church services live to their church members. Chronister said that officers had talked to Howard-Browne twice on Friday and warned him that by holding in-person church services that he was creating a “dangerous environment.”
State Attorney Andrew Warren said during the press conference, “I think it’s unfortunate that the pastor here is hiding behind the First Amendment. One, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid. Second of all, leaders from our faith-based community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing.”
The church said in a statement, “We feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community.”
Fox 13 reported that Chronister made clear that this was not an attack on religious freedom, saying that faith is very important in times like these but that church leaders need to “do it responsibly.”
Florida is not the only place where officials are cracking down on people gathering to attend large church services.
New York City Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened churches late last week that they may be permanently closed if they did not follow social distancing orders.
“So, I want to say to all those who are preparing the potential of religious services this weekend – if you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services,” de Blasio told reporters. “I don’t say that with any joy. It’s the last thing I would like to do because I understand how important people’s faiths are to them, and we need our faiths in this time of crisis, but we do not need gatherings that will endanger people.”
“No faith tradition endorses anything that endangers the members of that faith,” de Blasio continued. “So, the NYPD, Fire Department, Buildings Department, and everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation, they’ll inform them they need to stop the services and disperse.”
“If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently,” de Blasio concluded. “Again, that will begin this weekend. Again, I’m sorry I have to tell you this, but anyone who’s hearing this, take it seriously. You’ve been warned, you need to stop services, help people practice their faith in different ways, but not in groups, not in gatherings that could endanger people.”