TAMPA, Fla. - Lawyers say charges have been dropped against the pastor of a Tampa megachurch who prosecutors said defied 'safer at home' orders when he held large services with hundreds of his congregants.
Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne drew national criticism after images from a service at The River at Tampa Bay Church showed the pews filled with parishioners the Sunday after Hillsborough County issued orders for residents to stay home and not congregate in groups larger than 10 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Howard-Browne turned himself in the following Monday after the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office charged him with unlawful assembly and violating public health emergency rules of isolation and quarantine in relation to the Sunday, March 29 services where the sheriff said up to 500 were in attendance. The church's live video stream showed a packed crowd cheering and applauding.
Sheriff Chad Chronister said Howard-Browne encouraged churchgoers to attend and even offered them bus transportation to get to the church.
The previous Friday, the sheriff said his deputies tried to speak to Howard-Browne about the potentially "dangerous environment" he was creating at the church, but church leaders allegedly said Howard-Browne refused to call off the upcoming services.
Advocates of and opposition to the pastor's actions raised questions about freedom of speech and public health. Howard-Browne said the church was an essential service and that “people have basically, literally lost their ever-loving minds,” referring to the government's measures to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Howard-Browne called off the following Sunday's service, saying he "had no choice" due to the legal battle he was now in.
"I’m not caving. I have to do this to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from the tyrannical government," Howard-Browne said in a video streamed live on Facebook.
But days later, Governor Ron DeSantis issued two conflicting executive orders, one in which he said church services were “essential” and religious institutions could be open to the public.
According to a video posted on the church's Facebook page, Easter services at The River of Tampa Bay Church drew more than 2,000 attendees.
Now, a few weeks later, the pastor's legal representatives at Liberty Counsel say they received a notice of termination of the misdemeanor charges against Howard-Browne.
“The arrest of Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne was politically motivated. Neither the pastor nor The River at Tampa Bay Church did anything wrong," Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said, in part, in a press release announcing the charges were dropped. "We are pleased that all the charges have been dropped. It is now time to move forward with healing and restoration.”