Defying a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, Pastor Rodney Howard Browne of River Church in Tampa, kept holding services at his multiple-thousand seat megachurch. He even livestreamed the service so authorities could conveniently observe his violation.
So, after two weeks of flouting public health, and the good of his community, they had this pastor charged and arrested, for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both second degree misdemeanors.
Despite warnings, Browne proceeded to hold two services, one at 9:30 a.m. and a second at 7 p.m. The first was streamed on YouTube and showed a crowded room of worshipers, with gaps of seating between several audience members. Browne encouraged those in attendance for coming to service, informing them they would be safe from the virus in the church, and mocked those who tried to dissuade him from holding a sermon; at one point calling them “idiots.” Browne also mentioned several times he was protected to hold the service under the First Amendment.Arrested pastor of Tampa mega church releases statement ‘praying’ for sheriff after coronavirus crackdown, Orlando Sentinel, March 31, 2020
I am pretty sure I know who is the “idiot” here. Browne, a South African immigrant who runs an international ministry called “Revival Ministries International, Inc.” is the same guy who a few years ago said he’d pray away Zika and in late February claimed he’ll “cure Florida of Coronavirus.”
He’s advanced all kinds of conspiracy theories about the Las Vegas festival shooting, chemtrails, weather manipulation. He recently tweeted that “Jesus would beat the crap out of John Bolton.”
I would sooner walk through Walmart’s cough medicine aisle without a mask than attend Browne’s church. I realize Christians should be encouraged to have faith in God to cure diseases like this, and I find that commendable. I also believe God will take care of us and protect us–in wisdom, grace, and humility. Pastor Browne exhibits none of these.
Browne probably knew he was going to be arrested. He prayed for the Hillsborough County Sheriff, Chad Chronister, during his service. “Even pray for the sheriff of Hillsborough County. They are under tremendous pressure,” Browne said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “I got thrown under the bus, but I’m a big boy I can take it.”
In my mind, Browne is wrong. He endangered the members of his church, his community, and southwest Florida by holding a large gathering. Over 200 people in the small city of Albany, Georgia, were infected when a pastor, not knowing he carried the virus, preached a funeral several weeks ago. Browne invited a mass community spread with his stunt. He deserved what he got.
However, arresting the pastor is also wrong. Sheriff Chronister pulled just as big a stunt hauling in Browne, and did injury to the First Amendment in the process, as Browne did injury to the body of Christ.
There was no need to arrest the pastor. All Chronister needed to do was put padlocks on the doors of the church, and a few sheriff’s patrol cars blocking the parking lot at service time. If he had the authority to warn and arrest the pastor, he had the authority to temporarily limit access to the building.
Or he could have threatened to cite every worshiper. Believe me, many would have stayed away if they saw a sign saying “attending this event will get you a $50 ticket” going into the parking lot. Chronister displayed a shocking failure of imagination, just short of loudmouth idiot Mayor de Blasio in New York’s threat to “permanently close” churches and synagogues that ignore his shelter-in-place order.
It’s wrong for the county sheriff to arrest the pastor of a megachurch for simply having church and flouting good public health. It’s a terrible overreaction–and frankly, what Browne wanted–to go after the pastor. All Chronister needed to do was prevent it from happening again.
And since Browne paid his $500 bail, what’s to stop him from doing it again, attracting the kind of people who believe in chemtrails, think the Las Vegas massacre was a false flag operation, and that Jesus would beat the hell out of John Bolton to gather in rapt attention to hear the “man of God” defy “the man?”
Two wrongs don’t make it right. Browne is a self-aggrandizing nitwit (that’s my opinion, but don’t argue with me over it), but Sheriff Chronister is blissfully ignorant of common sense. The First Amendment is too important to be subjected to this clown show.
But, as they say, here we are.