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Florida's coronavirus stay-at-home order doesn't bar churches from holding services

The sheriff admits he can't stop Rodney Howard-Browne, who was arrested for holding services at his Tampa-area church, from reopening the church during the pandemic.
Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne in 1999.
Rodney Howard-Browne in a sermon in New York in 1999.Clarence Davis / NY Daily News via Getty Images file

The Florida pastor who made headlines by defying a local stay-at-home order and holding a church service that potentially exposed hundreds of people to the coronavirus could do the same thing again on Easter.

So far, Rodney Howard-Browne has 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 that if Howard-Browne decides to do so, it can't stop him.

That's because the stay-at-home executive order Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued last week doesn't bar churches from holding services. And DeSantis' order trumps the much stricter Hillsborough County stay-at-home order, under which Howard-Browne was arrested for endangering the public by holding two services at the church March 29.

"We are continuing to try to educate the public as much as possible, but the decision to deem churches as nonessential and/or place a limit on their occupancy falls in the hands of Governor Ron DeSantis now," Crystal Clark, chief spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, said in an email. "Locally, we cannot prevent him from holding services at this time."

Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, an activist law firm that took up Howard-Browne's case, said the pastor "has not made a decision on what he plans to do on Easter Sunday."

"That decision will come later this week," he said.

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The ongoing church-versus-state duel in Tampa is being replayed in other parts of the country as the rapidly spreading virus has pitted public safety concerns against freedom of religion rights.

In California, heath officials in Sacramento are trying to get members of Bethany Slavic Missionary Church, where at least 70 congregants have been infected, to stop gathering in private homes for Bible studies.

In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church outside Baton Rouge held a packed Palm Sunday service even after he was issued a summons for violating the governor's ban on large gatherings.

In Ohio, Solid Rock Church, a nondenominational megachurch in Lebanon, held a scaled-back Palm Sunday service even after Republican Gov. Mike DeWine pleaded with church officials not to and warned that endangering worshippers was "not a Christian thing to do."

But DeSantis, a Republican who has taken heat over his slow response to the coronavirus crisis, insisted that there are constitutional limits to what he can do.

"I don't know that [governments] would have the authority, quite frankly, to close a religious" institution, DeSantis said last week in explaining his decision not to shutter churches in Florida. "The Constitution doesn't get suspended here."

DeSantis' order came after Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister had Howard-Browne arrested after a deputy reported March 29 that 500 people attending a Sunday service in the church's assembly hall "were not able to maintain the 'social distancing' guidelines of 6-foot distance between people," according to a sheriff's department report.

Noting that Howard-Browne could have simply livestreamed the service for his 4,000 or so followers, Chronister said later, "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."

Howard-Browne later blasted Chronister, a Republican, for "caving" to outside pressure.

"It will be on his record that he shut down a body of Christ, shut down a food ministry that feeds up to 1,000 families every week," the pastor said last week in a live video broadcast monitored by the Tampa Bay Times.

In his most recent statement, Howard-Browne insisted that he was arrested on "trumped-up charges" and said the church "went above and beyond the requirements for secular businesses to protect the health and well-being of the people who attended."

Federal and state laws mandate that the government avoid taking actions that would in any way restrict the 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 being in compliance with those laws," Siddiqi said. "These are unprecedented times, however. It is hard to imagine a religious freedom claim would hold up in court in the face of the compelling government interest in protecting our public health in the midst of a pandemic. We know the virus doesn't discriminate between gatherings of people based on whether or not they are religious."

Legal experts like Nadav Shoked of Northwestern University said that law enforcement actually has the power to clamp down on rebellious religious leaders who endanger the public but that exercising the power is a different story.

"There appears to be little legal impediments blocking cities or states from shutting down churches — as long as they are not targeting just churches," Shoked said in an email.

Defenders of pastors like Howard-Browne could argue that "this is an interference with freedom of religion," Shoked said.

"The problem is that even if the Supreme Court is much more open to such theories — which it clearly is (it's a conservative, rather pro religious court), they would still allow the state to enforce a general law interfering with religion if there is a strong enough state interest behind that law," Shoked said. "Clearly there is one here."

Daniel Feldman, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed.

"My short answer is they can try to enforce the law and expect it to be litigated," he told NBC News. "It's easier to get forgiveness than permission, so I expect that most law enforcement, acting in the public interest, would go ahead and enforce the law."

So what's really stopping authorities?

"You could say going after religious leaders is bad PR/politics, but I think that much more than that it's just the fact that so far we haven't truly been enforcing the shutdown orders/ordinances," Shoked said. "The shelter-at-home orders are mandatory but originally cities and states explicitly said they won't enforce them, and even now they are not really enforcing them aggressively."

Still, in some parts of the country, local authorities haven't hesitated to crack down when groups have flouted local rules by gathering for religious services. Orthodox Jewish groups, in particular, have been hit with summonses in New Jersey and Brooklyn, New York, after large numbers gathered for weddings and other celebrations.

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That's nothing compared to Israel, where officials have sealed off the city of Bnei Brak, where the apparent failure of some Orthodox Jewish residents to follow social distancing rules turned it into a hot spot of coronavirus contagion.

In justifying their decisions to keep their churches open, religious leaders like Spell cited Scripture and insisted that dark forces were at work.

"We're defying the rules because the commandment of God is to spread the Gospel," Spell told Reuters recently. "The church is the last force resisting the Antichrist. Let us assemble regardless of what anyone says."

The Rev. Nathan Empsall, an Episcopal priest and leader of the Christian activist group Faithful America, said "different pastors have continued to hold services for different reasons."

"For many, physicality is an important aspect of their worship, and perhaps their faith itself," he said.

But Empsall said some leaders of extremely conservative flocks like Spell's appear to be taking their cues from President Donald Trump, who said earlier that he'd like to see "churches packed full of people for Easter." He later reversed himself.

"As a result, Trump's cavalier attitude towards the virus — and Democrats' fears about it — means that many conservatives simply aren't taking the virus seriously enough," Empsall said. "That political belief influences their religions' response. Worries about how to love one's neighbor simply don't come into play if you don't realize you're making your neighbors sick."

Spell couldn't immediately be reached for comment. But in an interview March 25, he insisted that "the virus, we believe, is politically motivated."

Siddiqi said it's important to remember that the religious leaders who have been defying government calls to cancel public services have been the exception, not the rule.

"The vast majority of faith communities acted quickly to try and flatten the curve by canceling in-person gatherings and engaging in social distancing," Siddiqi said. "So many faith leaders are playing multiple critical roles right now. They are developing new ways of engaging in rituals, learning new technologies, addressing the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of community members with greater intensity than ever before and navigating how to visit the sick or hold a funeral when those things cannot be done safely in person."

Siddiqi noted that three major religions have big holy days coming up: Easter for most Christians, Passover for Jews and Ramadan for Muslims.

"It will be incredibly challenging for many people of faith to miss out on being in community during those times," she said. "Whether or not religious gatherings are banned in one's own state or locale, it is up to faith communities themselves to exercise great caution, especially as the holiday season coincides with a rising death toll in our country. I hope everyone will choose the faithful response to stay home and save lives."