Do Religious Services Qualify as Essential?

Do Religious Services Qualify as Essential?


DeSantis quietly signs second order overruling all local coronavirus orders, including church bans

Gov. Ron DeSantis quietly signed a second order Wednesday evening that forces local governments to follow the state’s shutdown order to the letter, opening the door to an immediate resumption of activities that cities and counties had banned. But at a news conference Thursday, DeSantis claimed his new order merely “set a floor, and you can’t go below that,” adding that if local governments wanted to close a running trail, for example, they could do so.

Of the 39 states that have implemented stay at home orders, 12 make exceptions for religious gatherings.

A revival held at a church resulted in an outbreak of the virus in Hopkins County, Kentucky, and the governor reminded the public Wednesday that those exercising the exemptions still hold a responsibility to take precautions to the virus. “The ramifications when we don’t follow this, end up being widespread and they hurt people that didn’t make that choice,” said Gov. Andy Beshear. “Let’s make sure that we’re responsible in the choices we make to protect those around us.” Here’s a list of states that still allow some form of religious gatherings during the stay at home orders:


Religious services are exempt as an essential activity because worship is protected under the first amendment of the Constitution. However, the exemption specifies that the services are exempt as long as they “provides appropriate physical distancing to the extent feasible.”


The state allows houses of worship to stay open as long as they are using an electronic platform or are practicing social distancing. Services from religious leaders are also allowed for individuals in crisis or for end-of-life services.


Along with social advocacy, business, professional, labor and political organizations, religious organizations are exempt.


The state recognizes attending a church, synagogue or house of worship as an essential activity along with caring for loved ones, pets and recreational activities that comply with social guidelines.


Kentucky makes an exemption for life-sustaining business and religious organizations that provide “food, shelter, social services, and other necessities of life” for people disadvantaged or in need because of the pandemic. However, the organizations must social distance as much as possible, including ending in-person retail.


Michigan also makes exceptions for operations, religious and secular, that provide necessities for those in need. The state also does not subject places of worship to penalties for breaking orders when they are used for religious worship.

New Mexico

The state does not include congregations in a church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship in the definition of “mass gatherings” that are barred.

North Carolina

Traveling to and from a place of worship is exempt from the executive order as “leaving the home and travel for essential activities.”


Religious institutions are exempt along with lifesaving and sustaining operations, health care, child care for employees of life-sustaining businesses, news media, law enforcement, emergency medical fire fighters and the federal government.


Religious services, if they cannot be conducted at home or remotely, can be conducted as long as they are consistent with guidelines from the federal government and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

West Virginia

Attending a place of worship is considered an essential activity in the state along with going to the grocery store or gas station, picking up a prescription or necessary medical care, checking on a relative, getting exercise, and working essential jobs.


Religious facilities, groups and gatherings must have fewer than 10 people in a room and must adhere to social distancing requirements.

The nationwide move to close churches, synagogues and mosques as part of the broader effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus is meeting some new resistance.

In a new “safer-at-home” order banning many activities, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Wednesday said “attending religious services” is among the “essential” activities that would be permitted. The order came two days after the arrest of a Tampa pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne, who held worship services in defiance of a local ban on large gatherings. That ban is now effectively overruled.

Governors in several other states have also designated houses of worship as providing essential services and thus exempt from shutdown orders. Those provisions have come in the wake of criticism, largely from conservatives, that any order to close churches constitutes a violation of the principle of religious freedom.

Liberty Counsel, a legal advocacy group that represents evangelical Christian interests, agreed to represent Howard-Browne and harshly criticized the move to force churches to close.

“Why is it the church can’t meet when it has a constitutional right to do so and has undertaken extraordinary efforts to protect people, but commercial businesses can meet with no constitutional protections and many do nothing to protect anyone?” the organization said in a press release.

A coalition of Catholic leaders on Wednesday similarly issued an open letter calling on authorities to recognize religious services as essential and pleading for the allowance of “some form of a public mass,” especially at Easter.

Many churches and other houses of worship have been forced to close in response to government bans on public gatherings of more than ten people. It is not yet clear whether the broadening move to include religious institutions as essential will allow churches, synagogues, and mosques to reopen.

In several states that do not explicitly mandate church closures, religious leaders are strongly recommended to suspend services.

An executive order issued Tuesday by Texas Governor Greg Abbott explicitly designated religious worship as essential and thus exempt from a mandate that “every person” in the state “minimize social gatherings” and “in-person contact,” and it overruled the local bans on large gatherings that had forced the closure of many Texas churches.

Legal guidance issued in connection with Abbott’s executive order, however, advised that houses of worship “must, whenever possible,” conduct their activities remotely.

Statement of Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne

Apr 2, 2020

My name is Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne. My wife, Adonica, and I are the founders of Revival Ministries International, The River at Tampa Bay Church, River Bible Institute, River School of Worship, and River School of Government in Tampa, Florida. I am the senior pastor of the church. We are a multi-ethnic local church, with an international outreach and influence.
In December 1987, my wife and I, along with our three children, immigrated from our native land of South Africa to the United States. I felt a call from God on my life to preach the gospel and to come to America. I am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America. When I became a citizen, I swore the Oath of Citizenship, before God—to uphold and defend the Constitution—and I have done everything in my power to do just that. My family and I are deeply appreciative to be able to live in this great nation, the beacon of freedom to the world.
The two greatest commandments mentioned by Jesus, to love God and to love people, exemplify my life. My greatest passion in life is to introduce people to Jesus, so they can experience His love and forgiveness.
As you know, I was arrested on trumped-up charges for conducting a church service on Sunday, March 29, which Sheriff Chad Chronister claimed, in a press conference, allegedly violated the Hillsborough County Executive Order that went into effect last Friday, March 27, at 10:00 p.m. The two charges are second-degree misdemeanors that carry a maximum penalty of two months in jail and $500 fine.
The fanfare and drama that surrounded my arrest was completely unnecessary. A simple phone call informing me that I had been charged with violating the Executive Order and needed to come to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office would have sufficed. I would have been willing to turn myself in but was not offered that option. It was unnecessary to send law enforcement to my home. And it was unnecessary to hold a press conference even as I was being arrested.
Before addressing some of the false statements made in the press conference, I want to say that even though the drama and made-for-TV press conference was not appropriate, I do not hold any ill-will toward anyone at the press conference, including Sheriff Chronister. I have the utmost respect for law enforcement. In fact, in January of 2020, I had the pleasure of honoring the Hillsborough County law enforcement by presenting a plaque to Sheriff Chronister at The River at Tampa Bay Church. Afterwards, we held an event for our church community (which includes many from the inner city) to interact with, and build a rapport with, our local police and deputies.
I also want to say that I was treated well and with dignity by the deputies and staff of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office who came to my home and walked me through the booking process.
Sheriff Chronister made statements at the press conference that the arrest was conducted at my home because the church has an arsenal of weapons. This is patently false. The church, like many churches, had armed off-duty deputies on Sunday to provide protection against anyone who might have ill intentions.
A statement was also made that I was “reckless” for holding the church service. With all due respect to Sheriff Chronister, the church went above and beyond the requirements for secular businesses to protect the health and well-being of the people who attended. None of this seems to have been taken into consideration but appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to hyped-up reports by media (who were not in the building at any time).

A statement was also made that we ignored repeated warnings. This is patently untrue! On Thursday, Sheriff Chronister spoke to some of our staff by speaker phone. I was also present. After we told Sheriff Chronister that we were enforcing six-foot social distancing, had installed over $100,000 of high-grade hospital air purifiers, and were taking other actions to protect the health of anyone who attended, he said the church could operate on Sunday, and that he had no intention to close the church or arrest anyone. The order then became effective on Friday night at 10:00 p.m. On Saturday, we prepared our building, and our staff and ushers, to take all possible, reasonable precautions. On Sunday, we held our usual meeting with the precautions (listed below) in place. At NO time, before or during the service, did we receive any “warnings” from the Sheriff or any other official.

The March 27 “Safer-at-Home” order contains, in paragraph 3, 42 sub-paragraphs of exceptions, including “religious personnel.” Following this long list of exceptions, in paragraph 5, the order adds another huge exception: “Businesses which are not described in paragraph 3, and are able to maintain the required physical distancing (6 feet) may operate.” (emphasis added). In other words, any business that is not in the long list of specific exceptions, is also exempted if it is able to comply with the six-feet separation between people. In such case, there is no limit on the number of people who can be present.

The church took extra precautions to more than comply with the Executive Order, which included the following:

  • Persons who were concerned for their health or had physical symptoms of any kind, were encouraged to stay home;
  • Every person who entered the church received hand sanitizer;
  • All the staff wore gloves;
  • The church enforced the six-foot distance between family groups in the auditorium as well as in the overflow rooms;
  • In the farmer’s market and coffee shop in the lobby, the six-foot distance was enforced with the floor specifically marked;
  • The church spent over $100,000 on a hospital grade purification system set up throughout the church that provide continuous infectious microbial reduction (CIMR) that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the Coronavirus family.

The church sanctuary has moveable chairs. Chairs were removed from the sanctuary so that the remaining chairs were separated by six feet. Any small group that may have been closer than six feet were family members that came to the church together. This six-foot separation was maintained throughout the church.

The church took every precaution to protect the people who attended. In fact, the kinds of precautions the church undertook cannot be found existing in many commercial business establishments that freely operate in Hillsborough County under this Executive Order.

The Executive Order on its face, and as applied, discriminates against religious services and gatherings, despite the fact that the First Amendment provides express protections to houses of worship and assembly. There is no similar constitutional protection for commercial businesses; yet houses of worship and religious gatherings are singled out for discrimination. The State of Florida’s Executive Order exempts churches, as does the Orange County Executive Order, and many other county orders. Yesterday, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a new Executive Order that states attending “religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” are “Essential Activities.” Surely, Hillsborough County could follow their lead and not violate the Constitution. There are other means available to achieve the interest that we all share to protect human life.

The word of my arrest has traveled around the world. While I have received vulgar verbal abuse and death threats from people who do not know me and are not familiar with the facts, I have also received many words of support and prayer. Many people are deeply concerned that in America a pastor would be arrested.

As my wife and I prayed about what we should do this weekend, we have decided to close the church for this upcoming Sunday service, for the protection of our people in this antagonistic climate, in large part created by media hype and misrepresentations, which have undoubtedly been exacerbated by Sheriff Chronister’s exaggerated and outright false accounts of the situation. We do not make this decision lightly. This is Palm Sunday. We are entering the time of year that is most important to Christians around the world in which we remember and celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

We did not hold church to defy any order; nor did we hold church to send a political message. We did not hold church for self-promotion or financial motives, as some have wrongly accused. We held church because it is our mission to save souls and help people, and because we in good faith did everything possible to comply with the Executive Order. Indeed, Sheriff Chronister told us last Thursday that we could hold church.

At this point, we believe it is prudent to take a pause by not opening the church doors this Sunday. This will allow an opportunity for people to take a deep breath and calm down. No matter your view on this matter, I encourage you to take a step back and reconsider the options. I believe we can better balance the health and safety of our community without throwing out the Constitution.

At this time, I have not made any decision about Easter Sunday or services thereafter. Adonica and I are praying and seeking the Lord for wisdom. I will say, however, that the church cannot be closed indefinitely. We believe that there are less restrictive means available to balance all the various interests.

My attorneys at Liberty Counsel will vigorously defend me against this unlawful arrest. I have also authorized my attorneys at Liberty Counsel to file a federal challenge to the Hillsborough County Executive Order. As I said earlier, this order violates the First Amendment and is unconstitutional. I have authorized this constitutional challenge for several reasons.

First, I have already been arrested once on trumped-up charges. I am a law-abiding citizen, who respects law enforcement. Like any normal law-abiding person, I would prefer not to be arrested again. A second arrest could escalate to a higher criminal penalty, or even a felony. No one wants to face criminal charges. My attorneys at Liberty Counsel are representing me on the criminal case, which we will move to dismiss.

Second, because of the publicity, the vitriol and death threats that have been directed at us and the church, I feel compelled by these threats to not meet this upcoming Sunday for the protection of our pastors, staff, and congregation. Also, I love my pastoral staff at The River, and they love us and are in agreement with our stance to obey the Word of God and also to stand up for our constitutional rights. If the church holds service this coming Sunday and the Sheriff chooses to arrest me again under this unconstitutional Executive Order, he will probably have to arrest all of our pastors for preaching in my place. Personally, I do not want to put my pastoral staff in a position of having to choose between criminal arrest or carrying out our God-given mission to worship together and lead people to Jesus.

Third, The River Church provides many ministries more than services where we physically gather together to worship. We have various training schools, and we also provide food and clothing to people in need. The Farmer’s Market and the weekly food boxes we provide are greatly needed at this time to help needy and hurting families. These ministries need to continue to operate to help people. We have many inner-city people who do not have the luxury of watching church online at home. We feel obligated to continue to serve them in person and to make sure we continue to provide groceries to them every week. People in our community need help more than ever in this time of crisis, and the church is where many of them turn for spiritual and material help. We need to be able to minister, without unreasonably restrictive measures, to their spiritual and material needs. Church is a body of believers that cannot be substituted online, especially for people who do not have access to the internet, or their internet is too slow to watch video. Our church helps hurting people and those in need, both spiritually and physically. There is no substitute for meeting together to help one another. This can be done while also protecting the health and welfare of those who attend.

No one wants to face arrest for a criminal charge just for exercising a constitutional right. The threat of arrest, and worse, actual arrest, operates as a significant chill to the exercise of constitutional rights. No one should have to choose between the two. Even in times of crisis, the courts are open to protect our constitutional rights. We hope and trust that the authorities in this case would re-consider their actions and choose to uphold the Constitution, for all of our sakes, basing their decisions on actual facts and correctly applying any and all of the law, rather than succumbing to pressure from certain antagonistic media.

May God grant us wisdom and blessings as we approach this sacred time of Palm Sunday and Easter.



  • Reply April 6, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    I’d say THEY DO

    • Ray E Horton
      Reply April 6, 2020

      Ray E Horton

      Troy Day I also say they do, but it is incombent upon us to be responsible and use wisdom. Social distancing is necessary at this time. Maybe a church with a small congregation and a large building could seat people 6′ apart, but most couldn’t.

    • Reply April 6, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      Ray E Horton Michigan also makes exceptions for operations, religious and secular, that provide necessities for those in need. The state also does not subject places of worship to penalties for breaking orders when they are used for religious worship.

  • Bishop Kens Celestin
    Reply April 6, 2020

    Bishop Kens Celestin

    Physicians, medical and health care professionals are essential because they care for the body. Pastors and…

  • Joe Absher
    Reply April 6, 2020

    Joe Absher

    Since they shut down our little services at the community center the pastor has been making home visits . I’ll see him this week . but I’m Chernobyl dirty working the streets . trying to protect the church family and do outreach as Jesus leads me I’ll follow

  • JameyJoy Doss
    Reply April 6, 2020

    JameyJoy Doss

    I would assume if you believe in a Real He’ll.

  • Reply April 6, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    do you not? JameyJoy Doss Ray E Horton

    • JameyJoy Doss
      Reply April 6, 2020

      JameyJoy Doss

      Troy Day yes that’s how dumb this question asked is.

  • Neil Steven Lawrence
    Reply April 6, 2020

    Neil Steven Lawrence

    Is the Ministry considered

    In war the chaplain has been seen as essential both before, during, and after battle.

    During various plagues many ministers put themselves in harms way to minister to sick people.

    Many missionaries go into hardship locations today where their lives are threatened and they are killed.

    More Christians are dying for the cause of the Gospel in postmodern times than have died in the previous 2000 years combined.

    Who views what we do as “essential” depends on their perspective. Those who have “crossed from death into life” understand it better than anyone else.

    Why do we think that ministering inside four walls is the only option? As a missionary Educator/Evangelist I have been ministering the Gospel in a variety of forms for 30 years and only been restricted to four walls for 13 months while I pastored in the Capital city Nairobi one time. Even then we were ministering outside in Crusades to bring people into the church. In a period of six months we grew the church from 30 to 80 in attendance and added six tribal groups. This was because we were going outside to reach people!

    I thought I was just supposed to be a Bible school teacher. I wasn’t called to minister in Kenya as a Crusade evangelist, or a TV preacher, or an Internet teacher/preacher; but 30 years later I’m reaching more people than ever before with these methods. Each of these methods of ministry required a substantial learning curve.

    The churches that have already set up live streaming were prepared for this eventuality. Some are even doing phenomenal jobs with very creative video editing. Generation XY & Z can relate to this format very well. Any church that has not made video ministry a priority has signed their own sentence of extinction.

    The churches that are doing outdoor parking lot services have the right idea. I have been thrilled to see that happening. The members staying in their cars while pastoral staff and musicians minister outside on a stage is inadvertently making the entire community to realize there’s life!

    When the crisis is over, many churches will have been forced to establish an online video presence; which means the entire world can now see their ministry!

    There are so many tools of communicating the Gospel which are being underutilized by the church. Maybe this is the great benefit that will come out of this crisis?

  • Reply April 6, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    oh dear he’s back once again and saying things Ray E Horton

  • Reply April 6, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    This is not in any way meant as a political statement but, for those who pray, it would be important at this point to pray for the government of the country even if we didn’t vote for it or fundamentally disagree with it. Their decisions affect us all.

  • Roger L. Frederick
    Reply April 6, 2020

    Roger L. Frederick

    To a few!

  • Reply April 6, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    YES to all – and justice to ALL

  • Neil Steven Lawrence
    Reply April 7, 2020

    Neil Steven Lawrence

    A little taste of what it means to be “an underground church.“

  • Reply April 7, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    not hardly Neil Steven Lawrence it aint NO taste for ppl that want to stay home on Sunday instead of going to church anyway But speaking of taste I told Lyndsey Dunn that digital communion leaves a bad taste

    • Neil Steven Lawrence
      Reply April 7, 2020

      Neil Steven Lawrence

      Troy Day Agreed… There’s nothing like personal interaction with the communicator of the gospel and the teaching of the kingdom.

      But Digital does have its benefits:
      1. It is available internationally
      2. It is available 24/7
      3. It can be shared at any time through links to a variety of platforms – not just inside four walls
      3. It is a permanent record
      4. It can be enhanced with other forms of media
      5. It can be shared to those lazy butts who want to stay at home!

    • Reply April 7, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      Neil Steven Lawrence I just read that BILL GATES new digital vaccine will be a liquid personal radio locator

    • Neil Steven Lawrence
      Reply April 7, 2020

      Neil Steven Lawrence

      Troy Day Cool. Now we know more about how the Mark of the Beast might operate. But no worries, you can’t receive the Mark of the Beast unless you worship the Beast; at which time I believe the Beast worshipper will not only receive the mark so they can “buy and sell” but also they will receive a demon. Too solidify this idea, there is some reason why people who receive “the Mark” are not able to repent. I believe its because they are demon possessed by one of the demons who’ve been waiting a long time to control another being (made in the image of God – ie. mankind). Now they can follow Lucifer in their host body. Corollary to this is Lucifer will not send a chief demon to possess the anti-christ, but he will do it himself. So the real issue is not “the Mark” but the power behind the Mark.

  • Reply April 7, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    what do you think Larry Dale Steele Peter Vandever Alan Smith Steve Losee Jim Price James P Bowers Lyndsey Dunn

  • Steve Losee
    Reply April 7, 2020

    Steve Losee

    In the OT it was only mandated 3x a year. In the NT it’s assumed but not mandated at all. The Church has survived worse; it’ll survive this.

    • Reply April 7, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      you mean going to temple?

    • Steve Losee
      Reply April 7, 2020

      Steve Losee

      I mean assembling…especially in a “temple” or other building set aside for it

    • Reply April 7, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      synagogues were weekly – the building OK – but assembling is COMMANDED in the Letter to Hebrews

  • Jim Price
    Reply April 7, 2020

    Jim Price

    People have routinely taken vacations and been sick and missed church. Christians are often stiff necked and rebel against anything that asks for their participation in the larger society. ” A revival held at a church resulted in an outbreak of the virus in Hopkins County, Kentucky.” People will die because of our attitude but we will dismiss it as God’s will.

    • Reply April 7, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      as Neil Steven Lawrence said the new corona vaccine by GATES is a liquid radio tracker for people

  • Skarlet Pike
    Reply May 19, 2020

    Skarlet Pike

    It’s essential, but it’s not a business.

    It’s a First Ammendment-protected right to free exercise of religion.

  • Dillon Thomas
    Reply May 19, 2020

    Dillon Thomas

    In the context of the virus? No.

  • Timothy Hutson
    Reply May 19, 2020

    Timothy Hutson

    Absolutely essential. Hospital for the spiritually sick. One church stepped up and had service in Indiana and I went. After 6 weeks of no corporate worship? Cried most of the service.

  • Reply May 20, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    I’d say they do based on the Constitution

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