The pastor of a megachurch in the US has been arrested after he allegedly held services for hundreds of worshippers despite government orders to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne has been charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order after handing himself in to authorities in Florida.
Lawyers representing the pastor – who had previously claimed COVID-19 was “blown totally way out of proportion” – insisted his church complied with rules that state people must maintain a six-foot distance in public.
They said the River at Tampa Bay Church “went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people” and claimed the actions of the local sheriffs were “discriminatory against religion and church gatherings”.
The governor of Florida has ordered that gatherings in the state, including those held by faith-based groups, are limited to fewer than 10 people to tackle the spread of coronavirus.
A live stream of Sunday’s three-and-a-half-hour church service showed scores of worshippers attended.
The sheriff of Hillsborough County in Florida, Chad Chronister, said his staff had warned the church’s leaders about the danger they were putting themselves in – and their congregation – by not maintaining appropriate social distancing, but Howard-Browne held the services anyway.
More from Covid-19
Coronavirus: Senior officer warns police over lockdown tactics after ‘over-zealous’ claims
Coronavirus: A field hospital in Central Park doesn’t feel that strange
Coronavirus: Boris Johnson under pressure over lack of protective gear for NHS staff
Coronavirus threatens the future of public transport, councils warn
Coronavirus: UK doubles intensive care beds on Falkland islands
Coronavirus: Comedian Paul Chuckle reveals he has been suffering from COVID-19
“Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this staff for forcing us to do our job,” Sheriff Chronister said.
“That’s not what we wanted to do during a declared state of emergency. We are hopeful that this will be a wake-up call.”
In a statement, the pastor’s legal representatives, Liberty Counsel, claimed the church enforced the six-foot distance rule between family groups, made sure staff wore gloves and gave every person who entered hand sanitiser, among other measures.
In a Facebook video posted on Sunday, Howard-Browne said “it looks like we’re going to have to go to court over this because the church is encroached from every side”.
On March 18, the church called its ministry an essential service, similar to police and firefighters, and said it would keep its doors open.
:: Listen to Divided States on Apple podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Spreaker
Howard-Browne’s church hosted an event last year with Paula White-Cain, who was named an adviser leading US President Donald Trump’s faith and opportunity initiative.
She is also an unofficial spiritual adviser to the president.
Mr Trump announced on Sunday he was extending coronavirus guidelines, including social distancing, until at least 30 April – as his top scientific adviser warned the outbreak could kill up to 200,000 Americans.
Nearly 160,000 coronavirus infections and more than 2,900 deaths have been reported in the US so far, with New York City the nation’s worst hit area.
At least six states have offered some degree of exemption for faith in their orders to stop non-essential activity during the pandemic.
Churches in Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana have continued to invite worshippers in recent days.