Rodney Howard-Browne, the leader of a Pentecostal megachurch in Tampa Bay, Florida, has been arrested after continuing to hold large church services amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff announced on March 30 that he had obtained an arrest warrant for the pastor’s arrest. About an hour later, Howard-Browne was booked into the Hernando County Detention Center, inmate records show.
Although the governor of Florida has not issued a statewide “stay at home” order, local communities have taken steps to curb the spread of the virus. In Hillsborough County, gatherings are limited to no more than 10 people and residents are instructed to remain at their homes as much as possible. In the order, which can be read here, religious institutions are not included in the list of essential businesses.
Howard-Browne has been dismissive of the threat from COVID-19. During a sermon on March 16, he told the River at Tampa Bay congregation that the church would never close and encouraged people to shake hands.
After his arrest, Howard-Browne’s attorneys at Liberty Counsel issued a statement arguing that the pastor had taken steps to keep parishioners safe at the Sunday services. His lawyers claimed family groups were told to stand six feet apart, staff members wore gloves, everyone received hand sanitizer upon arrival, and that the church’s air filter technology can kill coronavirus microbes.
Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver also took issue with the stay-at-home order and which entities were deemed to be essential. He argued that the order “has so many exceptions it looks like swiss cheese. The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt or exempt if they can comply with a six-foot separation. Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation.”
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Rodney Howard-Browne Has Said Only the Rapture Could Force His Church to Close & Referred to Those Concerned About COVID-19 as ‘Pansies’
Rodney Howard-Browne told his congregation during a service on March 15 that his church would remain open and that only the end of the world could force him to close it. He retweeted a portion of his sermon that was shared to Twitter from that day. The clip is embedded above.
In the clip, Howard-Browne urged everyone to shake hands. “I know they don’t want us to do this, but just turn around and greet two, three people. Tell them you love them, Jesus loves them.” He reassured the congregation, “This has to be the safest place. If you cannot be saved in church, you in serious trouble.”
Howard-Browne then said, “This church will never close. The only time the church is closed is when the rapture is taking place.” In Christianity, the rapture refers to the second coming of Jesus Christ, when he will destroy the devil and the “Last Judgement” of mankind will take place.
Howard-Browne then suggested that his congregation is not afraid of contracting the coronavirus and that anyone who does it weak. “This Bible school is open because we’re raising up revivalists, not pansies.”
The Orlando Weekly reported that during one of his sermons, Howard-Browne insisted the coronavirus was less of a threat than the flu. “Suddenly we are demonized because we believe that God heals, that the lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some kook… we are free in America to worship God freely.”
2. Sheriff: Howard-Brown’s ‘Reckless Disregard For Human Life’ Put Thousands of People’s Lives in Danger
Sheriff Chad Chronister of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office said his office received an anonymous tip that Rodney Howard-Browne was continuing to hold services with hundreds of people, even after legal orders were enacted barring large gatherings. The sheriff explained during a news conference on March 30 that law enforcement officials attempted to speak with the pastor at his church days earlier, but that he refused to see them.
Officials instead met with the pastor’s attorneys. Sheriff Chronister said the goal had been to “educate” the pastor about the “dangerous environment” he was creating by continuing to hold large services with hundreds of people packed into one room. Officials pointed out that Howard-Browne has the capability to broadcast his sermons over the internet, and therefore does not need to have services in-person during this pandemic. The River already streams its services online each week.
The sheriff added that other religious institutions have adopted this practice and encouraged their own congregations to practice social distancing. But Howard-Browne instead insisted on members of the congregation attend in-person and provided bussing to the church.
Howard-Browne’s defense has been that holding the services is within his first amendment rights. Hours before his arrest, the pastor even retweeted the sheriff office’s statement that his church was violating “the President’s guidelines for America, recommendations made by the CDC, and orders from the Governor.” Howard-Browne wrote that his attorneys were “meeting with authorities to resolve any issues!” He used the hashtags #thestand and #1stamendment.
But the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s office disagreed with his argument that the first amendment was applicable in this case, because large gatherings had been designated as temporarily illegal. Sheriff Chronister argued that the health and safety of the community has to come first, stating that Howard-Browne’s “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 is charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules. Both charges are second-degree misdemeanors. He turned himself into authorities and was booked into the Hernando County Detention Center around 2:20 p.m. on March 30, inmate records show.
He was taken into custody there instead of Hillsborough County, because that is where he lives, the sheriff explained. Sheriff Chronister added that his office worked with Howard-Browne’s attorneys to allow him to turn himself in order to protect the safety of law enforcement. He referenced Howard-Browne’s past statements about possessing an arsenal of weapons and having private security. In 2017, the pastor posted on Instagram that the church was “heavily armed,” the Miami Herald reported at the time. The post was shared after a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
3. Rodney Howard-Browne Claimed He Cured Zika & Promised to Rid Florida of the Coronavirus
Rodney Howard-Browne has made large claims in regards to his abilities as a religious leader. In a clip shared by Right Wing Watch in February 2020, Howard-Browne claimed that he cured Florida of the zika virus “in the name of Jesus” and vowed that he would do the same against the coronavirus.
In the clip, the pastor said he had been asked why he couldn’t rid the entire world of these viruses. He said it was because he “can’t be responsible” for every city in the world.
In July of 2018, Howard-Browne took credit for saving the planet from the devil. During a sermon, he claimed that he had issued a “restraining order” against the Antichrist. “If you think I’m crazy, that’s fine. I didn’t come here, I don’t care what people think. I’m here to deliver a message whether people like it or not. I’m not gonna change anything. I’m not looking to become accepted. I’m already accepted by Him. I’m just a messenger boy.”
4. Howard-Browne Prayed Over President Trump In 2017 & Said Jesus Would Have ‘Beat the Crap’ Out of John Bolton For ‘Turning On’ the President
Rodney Howard-Browne and his wife, Adonica Howard-Browne, has previously spent time at the White House. He shared a photo to Facebook on July 11, 2017, as he stood over President Donald Trump with his hands on the president’s back. Vice President Mike Pence can be seen amongst the men in the group, with his head bowed in prayer. Howard-Browne and his wife were invited by televangelist Paula White-Cain, Vanity Fair reported.
Howard-Browne explained, “Yesterday was very surreal for @ahowardbrowne & I. 30 years ago we came from South Africa to America as missionaries. Yesterday I was asked by Pastor Paula White-Cain to pray over our 45th President – what a humbling moment standing in the Oval Office – laying hands and praying for our President – Supernatural Wisdom, Guidance and Protection – who could ever even imagine – wow – we are going to see another great spiritual awakening.”
President Trump appears to have met Howard-Browne along the campaign trail. The pastor gave the opening prayer before a rally at the Florida State Fair Grounds in November 2016.
In January 2020, Howard-Browne also made headlines for his defense of President Trump amid the impeachment hearings. He specifically addressed former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s decision to write a book about his time in the administration. Howard-Browne wrote on Twitter, “You are a slime ball of the highest order. I should have knocked your sorry butt through the door of the Oval Office into the rose garden when I saw you. I would have gladly been arrested … what a Benedict Arnold … I am glad you were fired!!!” In a follow-up tweet, Howard-Browne wrote that Jesus would have “made a whip and beat the crap” out of Bolton.
5. Rodney Howard-Browne Said He & His Wife Were ‘Called By God’ to Be Missionaries In the United States
Rodney Howard-Browne was born and raised in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. His wife, Adonica, was born in Zimbabwe before her family relocated to Johannesburg, according to their church’s website.
After getting married in 1981, the couple traveled around South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia as ministers. They had three children together: Kirsten, Kelly May, and Kenneth.
Howard-Browne explained that the family moved to the United States in 1987 in order to answer a calling from God to spread the faith in the United States.
He wrote, “The Lord had spoken through Rodney in a word of prophecy and declared: ‘As America has sown missionaries over the last 200 years, I am going to raise up people from other nations to come to the United States of America. I am sending a mighty revival to America.'”
Howard-Browne added, “The Lord supernaturally provided for their air tickets and they came to America with only $300, four suitcases, and their three children, then aged five, three and seven months.”
The couple founded The River at Tampa Bay Church in December 1996.