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Pastor arrested for violating 'safer-at-home' order says churches should stay open during pandemic

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

TAMPA, Fla. — "...They don't even understand the Constitution of the United States," was the opening line of a Facebook Live from Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne as he spoke Monday following his arrest for violating a countywide "safer-at-home" order.

Howard-Browne was arrested Monday and charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules. He has since bonded out of jail.

During the live video, Howard-Browne repeatedly defended his decision to hold Sunday services at the River at Tampa Bay Church this past weekend, saying it was within his rights under the Constitution to do so. He cited several times that if alcohol stores, medicinal marijuana shops, and abortion clinics were allowed to remain open, churches should be as well. 

A post written on Revival Ministries International's website on March 22 outlines the ministry's belief that churches should be deemed essential. Several days before that, a press statement said "the Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty."

The "safer-at-home" order was passed in Hillsborough County on March 27, and religious organizations were not been given an "essential" designation under the order.  

RELATED: Pastor arrested, accused of violating 'safer-at-home' order by holding Sunday services

The order says "non-essential businesses that are unable to maintain the required physical distancing (6 feet) to keep employees and customers safe, must close."

RELATED: Stay-at-home vs shelter-in-place: Here's what they mean

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said Howard-Browne refused requests to stop gatherings at the church and even encouraged people to meet at the church. Chronister said the pastor "put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk," and in turn thousands of Tampa Bay residents in danger.

During the video, Howard-Browne and his wife, Pastor Adonica Howard-Browne, repeatedly said the Constitution was not being respected by governors, state, county, and country officials, and that not allowing churches to meet under the order was unconstitutional. 

RELATED: Live stream shows Tampa Bay Church packed with people Sunday amid COVID-19 pandemic

However, constitutional law experts say there is precedent.

Lou Virelli, a constitutional law professor at Stetson University, says a U.S. Supreme Court case from 30 years ago – Employment Division v. Smith, essentially says that as long as the government isn’t asking the church to do something it isn’t asking everyone else to do, it’s on solid legal ground.

“Of course, if they were targeting churches, if worship ceremonies were singled out, that would be a totally different situation,” Virelli said. “But I think it’s fair to say that’s not what’s happening here.”

Howard-Browne also said he "has been compliant with the laws" in Hillsborough County. 

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