Florida megachurch flouts safer-at-home orders with Sunday sermon, says it's 'not a non-essential service'

The River at Tampa Bay Church held a 3.5-hour service that saw hundreds gather, openly in defiance of safer-at-home orders issued by the state

                            Florida megachurch flouts safer-at-home orders with Sunday sermon, says it's 'not a non-essential service'
(Getty Images)

TAMPA, FLORIDA: A megachurch in Florida openly flouted social distancing conventions amidst the novel coronavirus outbreak and held a gathering that attracted hundreds.

The River at Tampa Bay Church posted live-streamed its three-and-a-half-hour Sunday morning "Main Event" service led by Pastors Rodney and Adonica Howard-Browne that showed hundreds of congregants who had come to pray.

The service began with close to an hour of music performed by the church band, following which Rodney Howard-Browne quoted Bible scripture that had the crowd cheering.

"No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling, no weapon formed against them," he said. "Of course, we’ve got what they call social distancing in here in this room and there’s people in other places and whatever, but we’re glad you came today."

While, in some places in the church, congregants did appear to be standing and sitting with an empty chair between them, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office issued a warning about violating the safer-at-home in place in the city to slow the spread of Covid-19.

The HCSO contacted the church to inform leaders the service had been held "in direct violation of the President’s guidelines for America, recommendations made by the (Centers for Disease Control) and orders from the Governor and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group."

The orders require gatherings, including those held by faith-based organizations, to have less than 10 people.

"The Sheriff’s Office has advised church leaders of the danger they are putting themselves and their congregation in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing at a time when COVID-19 cases are unfortunately still on the rise in Hillsborough County," the statement added.

The state law allows the order to be enforced as a second-degree misdemeanor that is punishable by up to 60 days in jail, a maximum fine of $500, or both.

However, despite knowing of the potential punishment, Rodney Howard-Browne had struck a defiant tone in his sermon.

"I know that they’re trying to beat me up, you know, having the church operational, but we are not a non-essential service," he told those gathered. 

"Not only the right of free speech but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe. Suddenly we are demonized because we believe God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some sort of kooks."

He had previously also advised his followers to shake hands, contrary to the worldwide advisory issued to avoid contact with people in an attempt to curb the virus spread.

But The River at Tampa Bay Church is not the only one seemingly ignoring the safer-at-home orders. Last week, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge managed to gather as many as 1,800 people to his congregation after getting people from five different parishes in buses.

A video posted on his Facebook page showed the congregation singing, praying, touching, and worshipping close to one another inside a tent, with Spell suggesting the virus was "politically motivated."

"If they close every door in this city, then I will close my doors," he argued when asked why he continued to hold gatherings. "But you can't say the retailers are essential but the church is not. That is a persecution of the faith."

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