Coronavirus: Florida pastor accused of holding services in defiance of social distancing order

A west-central Florida pastor is accused of violating social distancing guidelines by conducting two large services over the weekend, authorities said.

Rodney Howard-Browne, co-founder of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, turned himself in to the Hernando County Jail on Monday, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Browne was booked on charges in Hillsborough County of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency, the newspaper reported.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister confirmed Howard-Browne's arrest in a tweet Monday afternoon.

Howard-Browne was later released after posting $500 bail, according to jail records.

At a news conference, Chronister said the pastor refused requests to halt the gatherings, and even encouraged people to meet in the church, WTSP reported. Chronister said Howard-Browne "put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk."

Hillsborough County issued a "safer-at-home" order effective Friday night. Under the order, only businesses considered essential were allowed to operate under the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Howard-Browne argued the church was an essential service, WTSP reported. He addressed the subject of social distancing, quoting scripture during a livesteam of Sunday morning's service, the Times reported.

“No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling, no weapon formed against them," Howard-Browne said during his sermon. “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."

In announcing the arrest, Chronister disagreed.

“The safety and well-being of our community must always come first,” Chronister told reporters.

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