TAMPA, Fla. --- The embattled Tampa megachurch pastor who was arrested Monday , March 30 after leading packed church services the day before -- despite social distancing orders from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office -- says he is canceling services set for Sunday, April 5.
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne has posted several videos on Youtube and Facebook since being released on a $500 bond for charges of unlawful assembly and violating public health emergency rules of isolation and quarantine. Howard-Browne pleaded not guilty and, in his videos, maintains he did nothing wrong.
The embattled pastor also said he has received death threats and that the sign outside of his church has become a shooting target.
“People have basically literally lost their ever-loving minds,” Browne said in a Facebook video.
After his arrest Monday for violating Hillsborough County’s “Safer at Home” order, the pastor declined requests from FOX 13 for an interview and instead went on Facebook to draw a line in the sand, claiming he’s fighting for something much bigger than himself.
“We are forced to national debate on the subject of the First Amendment. Again, it’s not about a virus. It’s about the church being an essential service to the community, and how the church can meet and take care of the people,” he claimed.
In a video posted Wednesday, Howard-Browne said the alleged threats have gone too far and he fears for the safety of his congregation.
"I actually have no choice at this juncture but to shut the church down this Sunday. No service at The River this Sunday," Howard-Browne said in the video. "I’m not caving. I have to do this to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from the tyrannical government."
The ordeal began Sunday, March 29 when the pastor held two church services, with hundreds of parishioners filling the pews. His attorney, Mat Staver with the Liberty Counsel, says social distancing was in place along with other protective measures.
However, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister called Howard-Browne’s actions reckless and illegal and he rejected claims that the church is being targeted -- by those with guns or with badges.
“This would be no different if it was a gym owner anyone who is encouraging large gatherings. You’re going to be in defiance of this order and find yourself facing the same type of results or outcome that this pastor did,” said Chronister.
But Staver said Chronister is using this national health crisis to score political points.
“It’s a political grandstand of the highest magnitude. Frankly, it’s insulting and shocking how this was handled,” said Staver.
Howard-Browne said during these troubled times, all he’s trying to do is protect the physical well-being of all of his parishioners while providing spiritual guidance. The suggestion that he is looking to get into a gunfight with law-enforcement if they try to shut him down, he said, is preposterous.
“We’re not violent people. We’re just there to protect our people, and we’re certainly not gonna have a shootout with the sheriffs. I mean, you have to be crazy to even wanna do that,” Howard-Browne added.
Sheriff Chronister said if the pastor violates the order for a second time, he will be thrown in jail with no bond until a judge can hear his case, which could be weeks from now.