You knew it had to transpire sooner or later: a religious leader claiming both spiritual and constitutional immunity from laws aimed at protecting people from COVID-19. As it happens, the first “martyr” to this dubious cause was a controversial Tampa pentecostal minister named Rodney Howard-Browne who has been defying official guidelines on protecting the members of his flock for weeks now. Here’s the Tampa Bay Times’ write-up of the arrest he deliberately provoked:
The pastor of a Tampa megachurch who held two services on Sunday for scores of worshipers was arrested Monday for violating a county order requiring residents to stay at home to limit the spread of coronavirus. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, co-founder of the River at Tampa Bay Church, turned himself in to the Hernando County jail and was booked on Hillsborough charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency, jail records show.
He got sprung on bail immediately, and will likely use the incident for massive publicity purposes. In earlier services after most churches in
Florida and elsewhere had suspended live events, Howard-Browne encouraged personal contact and claimed his sanctuary contained “machines” that would “kill every virus in the place,” making it “the most sterile building in…all of America.” He is also, of course, arguing the local order he defied violated his religious liberty rights:
“We are not stopping anything. I’ve got news for you, this church will never close. The only time the church will close is when the Rapture is taking place,” he said earlier this month.
Howard-Browne has also suggested those believers who fear the coronavirus are “pansies,” and as reported in the New York Times, has argued he’s fighting a global socialist conspiracy:
“Because the climate change narrative for global governance failed,” Mr. Howard-Browne said in a video of the [March 15] service, “they are using the World Health Organization to then come in and take over the control of nations.” He added, “There’s going to be forced vaccines” to “kill off many people.”
You might think Howard-Browne is cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs and dismiss him as a fringe character. But he seems to have some friends in high places:
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.
White-Cain, a fellow Floridian, is considered Trump’s chief “spiritual advisor,” and recently appeared at services at Howard-Browne’s church.
We’ll probably soon see if POTUS, who as of this weekend has recommitted himself to strict quarantine rules for combatting COVID-19, takes exception to this act of defiance from one of his faithful followers. Howard-Browne does seem to be the sort of character who is hard to ignore.
In addition, his rebellion may be spreading, as the Houston Chronicle reports:
A hardline conservative power broker and three Harris County pastors filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court Monday arguing that Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order violates the Constitution by ordering the closure of churches and failing to define gun shops as an “essential” business. The emergency petition for a writ of mandamus, filed by anti-LGBTQ Republican activist Steven Hotze and pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez, contends that Hidalgo’s order undercuts the First Amendment by limiting religious and worship services to video or teleconference calls.
I bet Howard-Browne wishes he had thought to join hands with gun owners in his act of civil disobedience. Next time, he might.