The Florida pastor who made the headlines defying a local stay-at-home order and hosting a church service that potentially exposed hundreds of people to the coronavirus could do the same thing over Easter.
Rodney Howard-Browne has so far given no indication that he will reopen The River at Tampa Bay Church this Sunday. It was closed on Palm Sunday.
But the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said if Howard-Browne decided to do it, it couldn’t stop him.
This is because last week’s executive decree from Florida governor Ron DeSantis did not prohibit churches from holding services. And DeSantis’ order trumps Hillsborough County’s much stricter stay-at-home order under which Howard-Browne was arrested for endangering the public by holding two church services March 29.
“We continue to try to educate the public as much as possible, but the decision to consider churches non-essential and / or to limit their occupation now falls into the hands of Governor Ron DeSantis”, Crystal Clark spokesperson The head of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said in an email. “Locally, we can’t stop him from holding services at the moment. “
Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, an activist law firm that took over the Howard-Browne case, said the pastor “has not made a decision on what he plans to do on Easter Sunday” .
“This decision will come later this week,” he said.
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The ongoing church-state duel in Tampa is being replayed in other parts of the country as the rapidly spreading virus pitted public safety concerns against religious freedom.
In California, health officials in Sacramento are trying to convince members of the Bethany Slav Missionary Church, where at least 70 worshipers have been infected, to stop gathering in private homes for Bible study.
In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church outside Baton Rouge held a Palm Sunday service, even after being summoned for violating the governor’s ban on large gatherings.
In Ohio, Solid Rock Church, a non-denominational mega-church in Lebanon, held a reduced Palm Sunday service, even after Republican Governor Mike DeWine pleaded with church officials not to do so, and warned that endangering the faithful was “not a Christian thing to do.”
But DeSantis, a Republican who caught fire on his slow response to the coronavirus crisis, insisted that there were constitutional limits to what he could do.
” I do not know [governments] would have the power, quite frankly, to close a “religious institution,” DeSantis said last week when explaining his decision not to close churches in Florida. “The Constitution is not hanging here.”
The DeSantis order came after Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister arrested Howard-Browne after an MP reported on March 29 that 500 people attended Sunday service in the meeting room. church “were unable to meet the guidelines of” social distancing “from a distance of 6 feet between people,” according to a report from the sheriff’s department.
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Noting that Howard-Browne could have simply broadcast the service live to its 4,000 or so subscribers, Chronister later said, “His reckless disregard for human life endangered hundreds of people in his congregation and thousands of residents who could interact with them this week. , in danger. “
Howard-Browne then criticized Chronister, a Republican, for “giving in” to outside pressure.
“It will be in his record that he closed a body of Christ, closed a food ministry that feeds up to 1,000 families each week,” the pastor said last week in a live video broadcast monitored by the Tampa Bay Times.
In his latest statement, Howard-Browne stressed that he had been arrested on “false charges” and said that the church “went beyond the demands placed on secular businesses to protect health and property – be present ”.
Federal and state laws require the government to avoid taking measures that would in any way restrict freedom of religion, said Maggie Siddiqi, who heads the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
“I have no doubt that these government officials are concerned about respecting these laws,” said Siddiqi. “These are unprecedented times, however. It is hard to imagine that a claim for freedom of religion would go to court in the face of the government’s compelling interest in protecting our public health in the midst of a pandemic. We know that the virus does not discriminate between gatherings of people whether or not they are religious. ”
Legal experts like Nadav Shoked of Northwestern University have said that law enforcement has the power to suppress rebel religious leaders who endanger the public, but the exercise of power is another story.
“There seem to be few legal barriers preventing cities or states from closing churches – as long as they don’t just target churches,” Shoked said in an email.
Advocates for pastors like Howard-Browne could argue that “it is an interference with freedom of religion,” said Shoked.
“The problem is that even if the Supreme Court is much more open to such theories – which is clearly the case (it is a rather religious conservative court), they would still allow the state to apply a general law interfering with religion if there is a sufficiently strong state interest behind this law, “said Shoked. “It is clear that there is one here. “
Daniel Feldman, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed.
“My short answer is that they can try to apply the law and expect it to be argued,” he told NBC News. “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, so I expect most law enforcement, acting in the public interest, to act and enforce the law. “
So what is really preventing the authorities?
“You could say that prosecuting religious leaders is bad policy / public relations, but I think that much more than that, it’s just the fact that so far we haven’t really enforced the orders / orders of shutdown, “said Shoked. “Home shelter orders are mandatory, but originally cities and states have explicitly stated that they will not enforce them, and even now they do not really enforce them aggressively. “
However, in some parts of the country, local authorities were quick to crack down when groups flouted local rules by coming together for religious services. Orthodox Jewish groups, in particular, were hit by convocations in New Jersey and Brooklyn, New York, after large numbers of people gathered for weddings and other celebrations.
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This is nothing compared to Israel, where officials have sealed off the city of Bnei Brak, where the apparent inability of some Orthodox Jewish residents to follow the rules of social distancing has made it a hot spot for coronavirus contagion.
To justify their decisions to keep their churches open, religious leaders like Spell cited the scriptures and insisted that dark forces were at work.
“We are defying the rules because God’s command is to spread the gospel,” Spell recently told Reuters. “The church is the last force that resists the Antichrist. Let’s come together regardless of what anyone says. “
The Reverend Nathan Empsall, Episcopal Priest and Leader of the Faithful America Christian Activist Group, said that “different pastors have continued to serve for different reasons”.
“For many, physicality is an important aspect of their worship, and perhaps of their faith itself,” he said.
But Empsall has said that some extremely conservative herd leaders like Spell’s seem to be inspired by President Donald Trump, who said earlier that he would like to see “crowded churches for Easter.” It then reversed.
“As a result, Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the virus – and the Democrats’ fears about it – means that many Conservatives just don’t take the virus seriously enough,” said Empsall. “This political belief influences the response of their religion. Worries about how to love your neighbor just don’t come into play if you don’t realize you’re making your neighbors sick. “
Unable to immediately join the spell for comment. But in an interview on March 25, he insisted that “the virus, we think, is politically motivated”.
Siddiqi said it is important to remember that religious leaders who defied government calls to cancel public services were the exception, not the rule.
“The vast majority of faith communities have acted quickly to try to smooth the curve by canceling the gatherings in person and engaging in social distancing,” said Siddiqi. “So many religious leaders play several essential roles at this time. They develop new ways to engage in rituals, learn new technologies, respond to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of community members more intensely than ever and explain how to visit the sick person or organize a funeral when these things cannot be done safely in person. ”
Siddiqi noted that three major religions have great holy days to come: Easter for most Christians, Passover for the Jews and Ramadan for the Muslims.
“It will be extremely difficult for many people of faith not to be in the community during these times,” she said. “Whether religious gatherings are prohibited in their own state or local or not, it is up to the religious communities themselves to exercise great caution, especially since the holiday season coincides with an increase in the number of dead in our country. I hope everyone will choose the correct answer. to stay at home and save lives. ”