US pastor arrested for virus order breach

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and public health violation.
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and public health violation.

Florida officials have arrested the pastor of a megachurch after detectives say he held two Sunday services with hundreds of people and violated a safer-at-home order in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities on Monday and was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. He was released after posting bail.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a news conference he negotiated with the lawyer of Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne to turn himself in to authorities in Hernando County, where he lives. His church is in Tampa.

"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," Liberty Counsel, Howard-Browne's law firm, said in a statement.

"Contrary to Sheriff Chronister's allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was 'reckless", the actions of Hillsborough Country and the Hernando County Sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings."

Howard-Browne is not alone in refusing to curtail in-person worship services despite public health orders designed to stop the virus spreading.

Churches in Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana have continued to invite worshippers in recent days as at least six states offer some degree of exemption for faith in their orders to shutter non-essential activity during the pandemic.

Chronister said his command staff met The River at Tampa Bay Church leaders about the danger of not maintaining appropriate social distancing but Howard-Browne held the services.

"Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this staff for forcing us to do our job. That's not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency," Chronister said.

The church said it sanitised the building and the pastor said on Twitter the church was an essential business.

The county and governor's orders require gatherings be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Australian Associated Press