Florida Issues Arrest Warrant for Pastor Who Defied Virus Orders

MIAMI — Before the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida, held two church services on Sunday — each filled with hundreds of parishioners — lawyers from the sheriff’s office and local government pleaded with him to reconsider putting his congregation in danger of contracting the coronavirus.

The pastor ignored them, proceeding with the services at the River at Tampa Bay Church and even providing bus transportation for members who needed a ride.

On Monday, Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County said he had obtained an arrest warrant for Mr. Howard-Browne for “intentionally and repeatedly” defying emergency orders mandating that people maintain social distance and stay at home.

“His 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,” Sheriff Chronister, who is a Republican, said at a news conference in Tampa.

Mr. Howard-Browne, who lives in Hernando County, was expected to turn himself in on Monday afternoon, Sheriff Chronister said. He faces two second-degree misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.

Florida is the second-largest state in the country, after Texas, with no statewide order requiring people to stay at home, leaving in place a hodgepodge of restrictions that have allowed many Floridians to maintain a semblance of normal life. Local authorities have frequently cited the lack of a state mandate as reason to urge — rather than require — residents to take precautions. The coronavirus poses a unique threat to the state, with its large older population and millions of visitors.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said on Monday that he would sign an order codifying local rules urging people to remain indoors, but only in Southeast Florida, the most densely populated stretch of the state, from Key West to West Palm Beach. That region accounts for about 60 percent of Florida’s nearly 5,500 coronavirus cases, Mr. DeSantis said.

He has blamed some of the contagion on travelers from New York and Louisiana fleeing hot zones there and ordered those visitors to quarantine.

Wildly different approaches by local officials have prompted outrage, especially online. While the city of Jacksonville, in Duval County, shut down its beaches, St. Johns County to the south did not. A striking aerial photo over the weekend showed bare beaches on one side of the county line and crowded sand on the other. (St. Johns County later closed its shoreline.)

Democrats have called on the governor to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but he has insisted on what he calls a “tailored” approach.

That approach allowed Hillsborough County to order that people stay at home — and it was that local order Mr. Howard-Browne defied, even as religious services of all kinds have been canceled across the country, or moved online.

The pastor had claimed the First Amendment protected him from having to follow the order. Andrew Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County, said emergency orders “are constitutional and valid” and apply to everyone.

“I’d remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31, which says there is no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself,” Mr. Warren said. “Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”

Sheriff Chronister said lawyers from his office and the county attorney’s office had advised the church’s legal team on Friday that holding services would violate the law. Members of the sheriff’s command staff went to the church in person on Sunday to try to dissuade Mr. Howard-Browne. He would not meet with them, the sheriff said, and held services in the morning and evening.

“They have access to technology allowing them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast television for more than their 4,000 members to watch from the safety of their own homes,” Sheriff Chronister said. “Instead, they encouraged people to come and gather at church.”

Other area churches, including the 34th Street Church of God, a nondenominational church in Tampa, have shut their doors and moved their services to live stream, the Rev. Thomas Scott said at the news conference.

“We value the importance of the laws of the land, and we value the importance of social distancing,” he said. “And more importantly, protecting our parishioners to make sure that they’re not in harm’s way.”

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