Sheriff's deputies on Monday arrested the head of a Florida church, accusing him of ignoring local orders against mass gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic and showing "reckless disregard for human life," authorities said.
The River at Tampa Bay church held services over the weekend, and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said he had no choice but to take action against the pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne.
"Last night I made the decision to seek an arrest warrant for the pastor of a local church who intentionally and repeatedly chose to disregard the orders set in place by our president, our governor, the CDC and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group," Chronister told reporters.
"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people from his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week."
Howard-Browne was booked for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both second-degree misdemeanors.
Chronister said his office had direct contact with the church, telling it not to pack its pews.
"Dr. Ronald Howard-Browne refused requests to temporarily stop holding large gatherings at his church and instead he was encouraging his large congregation to meet at his church," Chronister said.
"Pastor Howard-Browne's actions were a direct violation of Executive Order 20-5, which went into effect on March 20, limiting gatherings — including faith-based gatherings — to less than 10 people. "
NBC affiliate WFLA reported Sunday night that church doors were open, with streams of cars pulling in and out of its parking lot.
The church posted a live stream of Sunday morning services and the sanctuary appeared to be crowded - with far less than six feet of separation between worshipers - but not completely packed.
Mat Staver, a lawyer who often takes high-profile, conservative legal cases, insisted his client's church did enforce a six-foot separation rule and dispensed hand sanitizer to worshippers, among other safety practices.
"The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body," according to a statement issued by Staver on Monday.
Howard-Browne said his church has an absolute, constitutional right to gather for worship.
"They're trying to beat me up, you know, having the church operational," the pastor told his congregation on Sunday. "But we are not a nonessential service."
While The River is in Hillsborough County, Howard-Browne lives in nearby Hernando County and sheriff's deputies there arrested the pastor at his home at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, officials said.
He posted $500 bond and was released from custody at about 3 p.m., according to jail records.
During Sunday services, Howard-Browne told worshippers they shouldn't answer to outsiders, questioning why services are continuing.
"My encouragement to you is not to talk to these people because they're not looking for the truth," he said. "They're just trying to find an angle to shut the church down."