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Crime Right-Wing Litigator Defends Pastor Who Defied Coronavirus Order

00:20  01 april  2020
00:20  01 april  2020 Source:   patch.com

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The pastor ignored them, proceeding with the services at the River at Tampa Bay Church and even providing bus transportation for members who That allowed Hillsborough County to order that people stay at home — and it was that local order Mr. Howard-Browne defied , even as religious services of

TAMPA, FL — The pastor of a nondenominational Tampa megachurch who was arrested Monday for encouraging his congregation to gather in worship on Sunday is being defended by the conservative nonprofit litigation organization, The Liberty Counsel.

a sign in front of a house: The pastor of The River of Tampa Bay Church is being defended by the conservation Liberty Counsel. © AP/Chris O'Meara The pastor of The River of Tampa Bay Church is being defended by the conservation Liberty Counsel.

The Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church, was arrested at his home in Hernando County Monday by Hernando County Sheriff's deputies after Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister issued a warrant charging Howard-Browne with violating county executive orders against hosting gatherings of more than 10 people and social distancing to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

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Howard-Browne bonded out of jail shortly after his arrest.

After receiving word that Howard-Brown was encouraging his congregation of 4,000 members to attend two Sunday services last week, Chronister sent sheriff's office legal staff to meet with church officials and discourage plans for the services. Chronister noted that the church has the technical equipment to livestream services to members, just as other Hillsborough County churches are doing.

Chronister said Howard-Browne chose to ignore the sheriff's office's warnings. He not only held morning and evening services but provided buses to transport congregation members to the services.

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He's been charged with two counts of unlawful assembly in violation of a public health emergency order, a misdemeanor offense.

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While churches across the country canceled on-site services in the midst of Lent to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Howard-Browne posted a video on the church's social media sites vowing to only close his church "when the Rapture is taking place."

During services, he urged members to hug one another, telling them, "We're raising up revivalists, not pansies."

After announcing The Liberty Counsel's intention to represent Howard-Browne, founder and chairman Mat Staver noted that the sheriff based the charges against Howard-Browne on the March 20 administrative order issued by Hillsborough County restricting all “public or private gatherings, including community, civic, public leisure, faith-based events, sporting events, concerts, and any similar events that bring together more than 10 people in a single room, single space, or any venue, at the same time…”

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The same order also exempts venues that provide essential goods or services "such as grocery stores, hospitals, medical facilities, pharmacies, gas stations, bank/credit unions, shelters and

government agencies and their meetings."

The order, Staver said, doesn't spell out what constitutes a shelter. He called it "an exceptionally broad word."

“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 6-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.”

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He said last Friday's Safer-At-Home administrative order issued by Hillsborough County further muddies the water. The administrative order contains 42 paragraphs of exceptions, including “religious personnel," said Staver.

"Following this long list of exceptions, the same order adds another huge exception: 'Businesses which are not described in paragraph 3, and are able to maintain the required physical distancing (6 feet) may operate," said Staver. "Paragraph 5, quoted above, stated if a business is not mentioned as exempted but is able to comply with the 6 feet separation may operate."

Staver said businesses such as the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Ruskin have continued to operate in Hillsborough County "either under the specific exceptions in paragraph 3 or the catch-all exceptions in paragraph 5."

Howard-Brown and his staff never recklessly risked the safety of the church's members as described by Chronister during a news conference Monday, said Staver.

He said they took extra precautions to protect congregation members during the services including enforcing the 6-foot distance between family groups in the auditorium and overflow rooms; handing out hand sanitizer to every person who entered the church; marking 6-foot distances on the floor to keep members from violating the social distancing guidelines; and spending $100,000 on a hospital-grade purification system set up throughout the church that provides continuous infectious microbial reduction that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the coronavirus family.

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“Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding 6-foot distancing, it went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people," said Staver. "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.”

He accused Chronister of grandstanding during the news conference.

“I was shocked that Sheriff Chad Chronister held his press conference before the arrest was completed," he said. "I am astounded that Sheriff Chronister used his press conference to lecture about the Bible. This is entirely inappropriate for a government official to takes sides on religion.”

While he didn't respond directly to Staver, Chronister reiterated the statement he made during the press conference.

“Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first,” said Chronister.

Howard-Browne has declined requests to speak with the media.

His latest sermons can be viewed on Youtube.

If convicted of the two second-degree misdemeanor charges, he could face up to 60 days in jail, a maximum fine of $500, or both.

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