TAMPA BAY FLORIDA – Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, 58, who refused to stop holding church services, in violation of a Hillsborough county-issued coronavirus restriction, and was arrested Monday, has announced he will not be holding services this Sunday.
His megachurch is called The River at Tampa Bay and he has a congregation estimated to be around 4,000.
Howard-Brown became famous in evangelical circles for provoking among churchgoers something he calls “holy laughter,” which consists of spontaneous, uncontrolled laughter during services, along with congregants making animal noises, shaking, hopping, dancing, speaking in tongues and falling over as if consumed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
About 400 people attended his services on Sunday, which prompted his arrest.
Howard-Browne said he will not conduct church services this weekend.
“I actually have no choice at this juncture but to shut the church down this Sunday,” Howard-Browne said on his livestream call-in show. “I have to do this to protect the congregation—not from the virus but from a tyrannical government.”
He said he did not want church staff or members to be arrested and suggested that an outsider infected with coronavirus might easily show up to a service and try to make his members sick.
“I’m not caving,” said Howard-Browne.
The pastor previously called those afraid of the coronavirus “pansies,” and said his church would only close if the Rapture were taking place.
On Monday, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a press conference held just prior to Howard-Browne’s arrest, “His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk, and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week, in danger.”
Howard-Browne is being represented by Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal nonprofit with close ties to Liberty University which is led by Jerry Falwell Jr.
“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,” said Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver.
Prior to the services last Sunday, Sheriff Chronister’s office warned church lawyers about the “dangerous environment they were creating for their members and the community.”
Howard-Browne went ahead with two services and the church live-streamed the morning “Main Event” service on its Facebook page.
Howard-Browne said during the 3½-hour livestream of the Sunday morning service, “No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling, no weapon formed against them.”
The crowd cheered and applauded.
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,” he said.
He also warned of powerful entities who want to “shut down the church” and “shut the pastors up.”
He received a standing ovation.
Following Sunday’s services, the pastor was arrested on Monday and booked on two misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health rules. He was released with a $500 bail. The Hillsborough County order requires gatherings be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of COVID-19. 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.
Later, on the evening of his arrest, on a Facebook broadcast, Howard-Browne said, “I pray for the sheriff. He’s a good man,” and blamed the media for pressuring law enforcement to take action against him.
Howard-Browne tweeted that the news media was “stirring up religious bigotry and hate” and claimed the church was shot at Sunday night.
That claim is unfounded, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said, noting that deputies were stationed at the church all night.
Liberty Counsel chairman Mathew Staver, who once said the “Q” in LGBTQ stands for “pedophilia, released a statement arguing that the order banning groups of 10 or more from gathering should not have applied to The River Tampa Bay Church and that the church did, in fact, enforce social distancing rules.
“The Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like Swiss cheese,” said Staver. “The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt or exempt if they can comply with a six-foot separation. Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation.
“The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body. Neither the Constitution nor Florida law protecting churches and the free exercise of religion disappear. This order from Hillsborough County is not narrowly tailored to achieve its underlying objective.”
Staver said Howard-Browne and his Tampa church took “extra precautions” and went “above and beyond” to be in “full compliance with the administrative order which allows any business to operate under the 6-foot restriction,” Staver argues.
In addition to following the 6-foot rule, the church staff wore gloves, gave every person hand sanitizer as they entered, and spent $100,000 on a hospital-grade system that provides “continuous infectious microbial reduction (CIMR) that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the coronavirus family.”
Staver previously represented Kimberly Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay people in 2015.
He also reportedly said that first responders probably needed to get tested for “AIDs-related conditions” after the shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando that left 49 people dead.
Right now Staver is focused on Pastor Howard-Browne and the sheriff who had him arrested.
“The sheriff and Hillsborough County will get a lesson on the Constitution and discriminatory application of the law,” Staver told Fox News.
“Sheriff Chad Chronister’s press conference was a shaming spectacle full of anger, lacking of facts, complete with a theological lecture about the Bible,” Staver said. “This over a second-degree misdemeanor before the arrest occurred.”
Howard-Browne Sees Sinister China Behind Coronavirus
At a prior service, on March 15, Howard-Browne encouraged parishioners to shake hands to show they weren’t afraid of contracting the coronavirus and vowed his church “will never close.”
“This has to be the safest place,” said Howard-Browne.
In his sermons and his online show, Howard-Browne suggested that the coronavirus might be a bioweapon created by China to destroy the U.S. economy.
“The World Health Organization has come in and is using a pandemic to take over not just America, but the whole of the world,” he said on his show.
At a March 22 sermon, the pastor said the coronavirus pandemic was a “phantom plague” created by the Chinese but planned at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation event.
He said COVID-19 tests are unreliable, vaccines will be a scam, and the “decision to launch the pandemic” was made at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Howard-Browne is originally from South Africa. He and his wife emigrated to the United States in the mid-1990s and founded a nondenominational church and a separate evangelistic ministry. He has been a supporter of President Trump since at least 2016, when he called the then-candidate “a threat to the New World Order and the One World Government.”
He has compared Trump to Rambo and said the “miracle” of Trump’s election was “the equivalent to having five Lazaruses raised from the dead.”
Howard-Browne was in a group of evangelical leaders who laid hands on Donald Trump in a White House ceremony in 2017.
Since his arrest, the pastor reiterated his support for the president.
“There’s nobody I’d rather have where he is right now than the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. He was made for this moment.”
A staunch supporter of the second amendment, after a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017, Howard-Browne posted to Instagram a photo of a sign at his church reading in part, “THIS IS NOT A GUN-FREE ZONE—WE ARE HEAVILY ARMED.”
Guest-hosting The Alex Jones Show on Infowars in 2018, he announced that Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be shot for treason.
In January, he tweeted that Jesus would have made a whip and “beat the crap” out of former White House national security adviser John Bolton.
Pastor Browne tweeted about Bolton, “You are a slime ball of the highest order …. I should have knocked your sorry butt through the door of the Oval Office into the rose garden when I saw you. I would have gladly been arrested …. what a Benedict Arnold ….. I am glad you were fired !!!!!….
“I have no respect for someone who is disloyal to the President and loyal to deep state !!! No respect! No respect at all …… what a globalist sellout!”