Charges dropped against Florida pastor who held church services, but controversy remains

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A Democrat prosecutor from Florida’s Hillsborough County has dropped misdemeanor charges against a defiant Evangelical pastor who’d violated the county’s stay-at-home law — but only because the megachurch leader has reportedly since begun complying with the order.

“In deciding whether to criminally prosecute violations of stay-at-home orders, compliance is our North Star,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, a Democrat elected to the post in 2016, said in a statement Friday.

“Each case is unique, and each one will be assessed based on the facts and the law. But, in general, if the person who was arrested poses no ongoing threat to public health, then our tendency will be not to prosecute the case beyond the arrest.”

Regarding Tampa Bay Church pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, Warren said that his arrest “accomplished the safer-at-home order’s goal, which is compliance with the law.”

Since the arrest, Pastor Howard-Browne has maintained responsible social distancing on his church campus while engaging with community leaders in a dialogue about the best path forward for his congregation.”

The dropping of charges marked an anticlimactic end to an ordeal that erupted into the national spotlight when Howard-Browne was arrested in late March for dismissing social distancing guidelines and holding a jam-packed church service.

“We are not a non-essential service!” he proudly declared to his congregants at the time. “Not only the right of free speech but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe. 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.”

The full service may be seen below:

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister was not pleased.

“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,” he said in a statement at the time.

“The River at Tampa Bay has an advantage over most places of worship, because they have access to technology that allows them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast television for the more than 4,000 members to watch from the safety of their homes.”

Howard-Browne wound up being arrested on second-degree misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency.

The pastor quickly hired representation from Liberty Counsel.

“The sheriff and Hillsborough County will get a lesson on the Constitution and discriminatory application of the law,” the firm’s founder, Mat Staver, promised Fox News at the time.

But Chronister wasn’t deterred. During a presser with Warren and local Bishop Thomas Scott, he bluntly stated, “We’re hoping that this serves as a deterrent.”



WATCH LIVE: Sheriff Chad Chronister is addressing the media about the packed services held this past weekend at the River Tampa Bay church in Riverview. #teamhcso

Posted by Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Monday, March 30, 2020

FYI, the plan didn’t work …

Two days after the presser, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued his own superseding stay-at-home order that contained a huge carve-out for churches. Nice try, though.

“The carve-out for houses of worship comes as authorities across the U.S. have cited religious leaders for violating social-distancing guidelines meant to blunt the spread of the new coronavirus. One pastor was charged in Hillsborough County, Florida, which encompasses Tampa, for defying a county stay-at-home order,” Bloomberg reported.

Despite the governor’s order, Howard-Browne never returned to his podium. In a podcast, he reportedly said he planned to shut down his church to protect his congregants from the “tyrannical” government.

“I have to do this to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from tyrannical government,” he said, adding that he did plan on holding an “epic Sunday morning classic River service” online.

He also threw some shots at local officials.

“It will be on his record that he [Sheriff Chronister] shut down a body of Christ, shut down a food ministry that feeds up to 1,000 families every week,” he said.

Since then he’s been broadcasting on YouTube. One of his latest updates can be seen below:

Despite Howard-Browne not yet reopening, his representatives are pleased with the final outcome.

“We are pleased that all the charges have been dropped” It is now time to move forward with healing and restoration,” Staver said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

“The entirety of the county’s safer-at-home order is unconstitutional, it violated separation of powers and the delegation doctrine. They arrested the pastor on an illegal order,” attorney Patrick Leduc, who also reportedly represented him, added.

Howard-Browne is no stranger to controversy. His name blew up earlier this year when he went on a Twitter tear against former National Security Adviser John Bolton.



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