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A Florida pastor who hosted large church services in defiance of local orders against group gatherings was arrested on Monday and now faces misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne held two services at his River at Tampa Bay Church on Sunday. Videos posted to Facebook by the church suggest large numbers of people attended the services, even after county officials restricted most gatherings of more than 10 people. “We would never impede someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort, but practicing those beliefs has to be done safely,” the sheriff of Hillsborough County, Chad Chronister, said at a press conference Monday. “This reckless disregard for human life puts hundreds of people in his congregation at risk.”
By all accounts, the vast majority of American churches have canceled Sunday services or moved them online, in compliance with local regulations, federal recommendations, and public health advice. Many are holding worship services and Bible study groups online, and providing aid to their communities in the form of emergency supplies, food deliveries, and even coronavirus testing. But the now-fringe idea that churches should remain open in defiance of public health has led to moments of rare agreement between some adherents to Howard-Browne’s charismatic Protestant tradition and other Christians in more staid liturgical quarters. The Catholic-flavored (and increasingly Trump-friendly) conservative journal First Things, for example, has published several forceful essays arguing for churches to remain open during the pandemic.
Howard-Browne and his wife, Adonica, are among an informal group of ambitious charismatic pastors and televangelists who have gained regular access to the White House in the Trump era. In 2017, he attended a prayer gathering in the Oval Office in which various Christian leaders surrounded the president and laid hands on him in prayer to offer what Howard-Browne described online as “Supernatural Wisdom, Guidance and Protection.” He said that he and his wife had been invited to the gathering by Trump adviser Paula White, another Florida-based charismatic pastor, who in turn has preached on stage at Howard-Browne’s church.
Howard-Browne has been a strong supporter of the president since at least 2016, when he called the then-candidate—admiringly—“a threat to the New World Order and the One World Government.” He has since compared Trump to Rambo, and said the “miracle” of Trump’s election was “the equivalent to having five Lazaruses raised from the dead.” After his visit to the White House, he told multiple right-wing media hosts that the Oval Office prayers were designed to ward off some kind of attack on the president, perhaps a “deep state” threat or a supernatural medical event like a stroke. In his own account, he declined to share the details of this hypothetical attack with the Secret Service when they asked for information.
Howard-Browne has a long career as a publicity-savvy religious entrepreneur. Born in South Africa, he and his wife emigrated to the United States in the mid-1990s and founded a nondenominational church and a separate evangelistic ministry. Howard-Brown’s spiritual specialty is “holy laughter,” a charismatic practice that consists of spontaneous laughter during worship services. Howard-Browne’s controversial promotion of the practice quickly made him a celebrity in charismatic Christian circles. In 1999, he rented out Madison Square Garden for a revival he said was inspired by a dream in which he was visited by Billy Graham (who at the time was still very much alive).
In recent years, Howard-Browne has become a noted provocateur, with a flair for the kinds of stunts and outrageous statements that stir up attention from audiences beyond his own church. After a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017, Howard-Browne posted to Instagram a photo of a sign at his church reading in part, “THIS IS NOT A GUN-FREE ZONE—WE ARE HEAVILY ARMED.” Guest-hosting The Alex Jones Show on Infowars the next year, he announced that Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be shot for treason. In January, he tweeted that Jesus would have “beat the crap” out of John Bolton. Online and in his sermons, he seems to relish negative attention, raising the specter of his enemies and then insisting their criticisms don’t bother him.
As the coronavirus advanced across the world over the past month, Howard-Browne responded defiantly. His national profile rose in tandem with the outrageousness of his proclamations. He called those afraid of the virus “pansies,” and said his church would only close if the Rapture were taking place. Two days after Hillsborough County announced new restrictions, he preached a sermon claiming the virus was manufactured by the Chinese government as a scheme to profit off America’s economic collapse. In that sermon, he said that coronavirus tests are not reliable, future vaccines will be a scam, and the “decision to launch the pandemic” was made at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Last weekend, he held services again, warning vaguely of powerful entities who want to “shut down the church” and “shut the pastors up.” He received a standing ovation.
Howard-Browne was arrested at his home on Monday afternoon and booked into the county jail. By that evening, he had posted bail and returned home. He is being represented by Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal nonprofit with close ties to Liberty University. In a statement on Monday, Liberty Counsel listed the precautions it said the church took to keep attendees safe and noted that the county order allows a wide range of commercial exceptions to the no-meeting rule but forbids religious meetings outright.
Now that he has been arrested, Howard-Browne is positioning himself as a kind of martyr to the cause of religious freedom. In a live Facebook video on Monday night, recorded after his release on bail, Howard-Browne said he had been “thrown under the bus,” and that he would let his congregation know this week if he would continue to hold services. The pastor also reiterated his support for the president, intimating that his treatment at the hands of the law would have been even worse under a different administration. “There’s nobody I’d rather have where he is right now than the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump,” he told the camera. “He was made for this moment.”