TAMPA, Fla. – On the holiest Sunday of the Christian calendar, the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne was angry. Instead of delivering his Easter sermon to a packed house of parishioners, controversy surrounding the coronavirus pandemic prompted him to live-stream his service on the Internet instead of appearing personally at his 4,000-person megachurch.
Howard-Browne used the opening moments of the unusual sermon – taped from his home studio with an American flag backdrop and a picture of him laying hands on President Donald Trump – to rail against government tyranny.
“This is not about a virus. This is about shutting down the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he preached. “And all these pastors that say, ‘Well, we should just roll over and comply,’ you don’t understand.”
For nearly a month, Howard-Browne’s megachurch, The River, has been at the center of a debate on how to balance religious liberty with public health. The controversy came to a head two weeks ago, when Howard-Browne was arrested after holding services packing hundreds into a sanctuary, defying a local emergency order limiting the size of gatherings to impede the virus’s spread.
The impact of the novel coronavirus on churches across the country has been particularly acute on Easter, the day Trump had hoped the country would reopen and church pews would be filled.
Instead, Easter worshipers mainly flocked to computer monitors and cellphone screens. A handful of state officials in places like Louisiana and Texas allowed a limited form of worship by either restricting crowd size or directing parishioners to stay six feet apart. But there were some conflicts, including in Kansas, where the state’s high court sided at the last minute with the governor to keep people at home.
Despite Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, limiting gatherings larger than 50, Pastor Tony Spell, who leads Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, planned to host 2,000 during two Easter Sunday services, he told The Wall Street Journal. Central Police Department Chief Roger Corcoran said he saw about 330 people attend the morning service.
Corcoran has charged Spell with at least six misdemeanor counts. He will report that Spell held an additional two services, he said, which may result in two more charges for the pastor.
Spell, whose legal team includes former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore, told The Journal that he would sue Edwards and any police officer who tried to arrest him. “The Bible commands us to gather together,” Spell said.
Not all state leaders have commanded that churches close. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said churches are essential and could remain open if they keep worshipers six feet apart.
“We fought to meet this way, and I know not everybody understands, because there is a lot of fear and panic out there,” Pastor John Greiner told attendees at Houston’s Glorious Way Church, which held two in-person services Sunday morning. The church said it would space 100 congregants across the venue, which normally holds 1,000, and offer hand sanitizer.
Virginia allowed drive-in services, as long as observers stayed in their cars and no more than 10 people led the event. On Easter morning, Pastor Terry Shuttlesworth paced as he delivered his sermon outside Dominion Christian Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He thanked the members of his congregations who were worshiping via live stream, and the ones whose cars filled the parking lot.
“For now, turn that car into your pew.”
But it is in Florida that the most high-profile clash between church and state has played out over Howard-Browne’s decision to hold March 29 services.
The pastor has been caught in the center of conflicting stay-home guidance from Hillsborough County and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican. The county’s emergency order banned church gatherings of more than 10 people and said they had to follow social-distancing guidelines. But that was superseded by the governor’s order April 1 saying churches were essential and could host services of any size.
The county’s order resulted in Howard-Browne’s arrest for what the sheriff called “reckless disregard for human life.” The pastor posted bail, and his attorney wants the charges dropped.
Howard-Browne was already a controversial figure. A native of South Africa, he founded The River at Tampa Bay in 1996 with his wife, Adonica. When their daughter died of cystic fibrosis in 2002, they vowed “to win 100 million souls to Jesus and to put $1 billion into world missions,” according to their biography on the church’s website.
That culminated in the Tampa campus, which houses an international ministry, a Bible institute and the church. In 2017, the Howard-Brownes were among the religious leaders invited to the Oval Office to lay hands on and pray for the newly elected president.
Howard-Browne is a conspiracy theorist who has appeared on Infowars, a far-right conspiracy theory website operated by Alex Jones. In 2017, he warned of “a plot on Capitol Hill to take the president out” and was subsequently visited by the Secret Service.
Howard-Browne declined to comment for this report. He defended in videos released on Facebook and on his church’s website his decision to hold church despite coronavirus restrictions.
“We had to make a stand,” he said. “I had to make a stand for the First Amendment. This whole stand was about the First Amendment. Everyone can say they don’t believe that.”
Mat Staver, Howard-Browne’s attorney who leads a legal group that defends religious organizations, said churches across the country are dealing with similar issues.
“The states do these executive orders and then they amend them. And they amend them from news conference to news conference,” he said. “Sometimes they refer to a previous order. Then you have counties doing the same thing.”
Howard-Browne insisted that he didn’t take his Easter service online because of coronavirus worries. He claims that he has received death threats and that sheriff’s deputies with dogs scoured The River because of a bomb scare.
DeSantis was one of the last governors to issue a stay-home order, instead deferring to local control to keep as much of the state running as possible.
In the Tampa region, an emergency policy group settled on a restrictive “safer at home” policy prohibiting most gatherings of more than 10 people, including church services at The River.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller, who led the emergency group, empathized with the plight of churches, he said, because he’s a deacon at a local Baptist church. But congregations tend to skew older and can be packed into a sanctuary for hours, making worshipers especially vulnerable. The largest church in Tampa Bay has 10,000 people.
“We’re talking about a pandemic that’s killing people. And the Lord says ‘Let ye not be foolish,’ ” Miller said. “Our deaths are growing. [On Friday] in the Tampa Bay area, we had nine deaths in 24 hours. That’s the most we’ve had. It has not subsided. It is getting worse.”
But Howard-Browne has been critical of social-distancing efforts and defiant about closing church doors.
“I know they don’t want us to do this but just turn around, greet two or three people, tell them you love them, Jesus loves them,” he said at a church service in early March. “If you cannot be safe in church, you’re in serious trouble.” Later, he said his church was “raising up revivalists, not pansies” and “the only time the church is closed is when the rapture has taken place.”
The emergency policy group enacted an order restricting large gatherings a few days later.
What happened inside the church on March 29 varies depending on who is doing the explaining.
Howard-Browne and his attorney said people, or at least family groups, were six feet apart in the sanctuary, and the church had invested in a hospital-grade air-filtration system to keep microbes at bay.
But a sheriff’s deputy who worked security at that service said the 500 people packed into the sanctuary made safety impossible, a police report says. On the pulpit was Howard-Browne, the deputy said in the report, “advising his church would not be shutting down and scheduled services would be continuing for the evening of March 29, 2020.”
Howard-Browne was arrested the next day, accused of thumbing his nose at the county and endangering everyone in the sanctuary – and the thousands of people with which they could interact.
Bishop Thomas Scott, a former county commissioner who leads 34th Street Church of God, said conflicting orders and guidance support people like Howard-Browne.
“You have the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and Trump’s [coronavirus task force] saying different things. And then the president wants to put the economy back together by the end of the month,” Scott said. “You’ve got a national conflict, you have a state conflict, and you have a local conflict all at the same time.”
Howard-Browne continues to spout coronavirus-related conspiracies as his church has been mired in controversy. He claimed that the response to the virus was part of a plot stoked by the World Health Organization and the Rockefeller Foundation that wanted to force vaccinations on people and murder them.
“This is a bio weapon that has been unleashed upon our nation,” he said. “Not only on our nation but all the nations of the Earth. And if you can’t see that, if you think that is just some natural pandemic, you don’t understand, there’s a war going on . . . in the nations of the Earth.”
On Easter Sunday, Howard-Browne said “the globalist agenda has played their hand too quickly” and called for Trump to fire advisers, including Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “If the president bows to mandatory vaccines, we know that he has kissed the ring.”
As for The River’s future, Howard-Browne would not rule out gathering in the sanctuary, regardless of critics.
“In the appropriate time, when I get the release from the Lord, we will open up again,” he said. “I’m just following what the Lord is telling me to do.”
The Washington Post’s Meryl Kornfield and Taylor Telford in Washington contributed to this report.
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