Florida church packed as defiant pastor says we’re ‘NOT a non-essential service’; sheriff issues warning

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One of the challenges to the prescription of social distancing is holding religious services, but a church in Tampa, Florida, is not to be dissuaded from gathering to celebrate Jesus Christ.

The River at Tampa Bay Church was filled to the rafters on Sunday, as a defiant Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne cited the U.S. Constitution to boldly declare, “We are not a non-essential service.”

“Not only the right of free speech but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe,” he said. “Suddenly we are demonized because we believe God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some sort of kooks.”

Howard-Browne quoted Bible scripture to say at the start of the service, “No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling, no weapon formed against them.”

 

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office contacted the church Sunday to warn that it was violating a Safer-at-Home order that went into effect Friday to limit the spread of coronavirus, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

(On March 19, the county announced it was releasing non-violent inmates to prevent the spread of the Chinese virus, COVID-19.)

“The Sheriff’s Office has advised church leaders of the danger they are putting themselves and their congregation in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing at a time when COVID-19 cases are unfortunately still on the rise in Hillsborough County,” read a statement from the Sheriff’s Office, according to the Times.

Lawyers from each side are reportedly “working to determine how compliance can be achieved.”

The church addressed the issue of remaining open in a March 18 statement:

“In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients. We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty.

“Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community, more than ever before.”

 

The statement noted that the church has taken care to clean and sanitize all surfaces, and that they urge those who may not be feeling well to remain at home, as the church stressed that it takes seriously the need to keep people healthy and safe.

At the same time, the church offered this reminder: “We are the Body of Christ and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe God‘s Word to us, which says to trust Him and to not be fearful but to have faith in Him. We are praying — as are our fellow Christians around the world — and we know that God answers prayers.”

In direct contrast to the church defiantly remaining open, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned he will shut down churches “permanently,” if necessary, to prevent religious services during the pandemic.

Speaking Friday at his daily press briefing, de Blasio said, “enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services.”

“Everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregations and inform them they need to stop the services and disperse,” he said. “If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.

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Tom Tillison

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