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Pastor Charged After Hundreds Attend Sunday Services

Sheriff had warned church about social distancing rules
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 30, 2020 4:26 PM CDT

(Newser) – Florida officials have arrested the pastor of a megachurch after detectives say he held two Sunday services with hundreds of people and violated a safer-at-home order in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus. According to jail records, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities Monday in Hernando County, where he lives. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order, the AP reports. Bail was set at $500, according to the jail's website. Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a news conference that he negotiated with the attorney of Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne to turn himself in. His church is located in Tampa.

Chronister said his command staff met with The River at Tampa Bay Church leaders about the danger they are putting themselves—and their congregation—in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing, but Howard-Browne held the services anyway. The Sheriff's Office also placed a digital sign near the church driveway that said to practice social distancing. "Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this staff for forcing us to do our job," Chronister said, adding, "We are hopeful that this will be a wakeup call." The church has said it sanitized the building, and the pastor said on Twitter that the church is an essential business. He also attacked the media for "religious bigotry and hate." The county and governor’s orders require gatherings, including those held by faith-based groups, be fewer than 10 people to limit the spread of the coronavirus. A livestream of Sunday's 3½-hour service showed scores of congregants.

(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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