Attorneys: Arrest of Tampa pastor who led packed services was ‘unconstitutional’

Hillsborough County

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Attorneys for a Tampa pastor are calling his arrest Monday “unconstitutional.”

Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay church bonded out of jail Monday afternoon, accused of violating Hillsborough County’s “safer-at-home” order.

Deputies with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office had issued warnings to the Mango area megachurch but packed services on Sunday carried on.

“It’s not about a virus,” Howard-Browne said during a Monday night livestream on his Facebook and Youtube channel. “It’s about the church being an essential service to the community.”

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a press conference announcing the arrest that Howard-Browne violated public health emergency rules by hosting hundreds of worshippers for Sunday service despite the risk of COVID-19.

Liberty Counsel, whose attorneys are representing Howard-Browne, tell 8 On Your Side HCSO volated the pastor’s civil liberties.

“They were fully in compliance yet they were targeted by the sheriff of Hillsborough County,” said Mat Staver, the group’s founder.

Staver argues that the church kept social distance in mind during the service and claimed that anyone seen in the service video less than six feet apart is family. He also claims the church supplied everyone with sanitizer and staff with gloves, plus spent thousands of dollars on air purifiers.

If Amazon’s Ruskin warehouse can operate, they argue they can too.

“You can’t simply exempt everything else except religious meetings, and that’s essential what this order does,” he said.

Drew Schwartz lives right behind the church and even worshipped there briefly years ago. He’s not surprised by their actions and believes it all comes down to being able to collect money.

“I’ve been there, I used to go there,” he said. “They have a lot of donation plates that come around.”

Howard-Browne wouldn’t say definitively in a live stream he hosted Monday night what his plans were for this coming Sunday’s services.

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