MANY STATES re-Consider Religious Services Qualify As ‘Essential’

Today We are All Rodney Howard-Browne
| PentecostalTheology.com

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.

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.

 

19 Comments

  • Reply April 3, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    YES #WeAreAll Joseph Castillo Robert Cox Larry Dale Steele 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.https://www.orlandosentinel.com/coronavirus/os-ne-coronavirus-desantis-second-order-supersedes-local-20200402-ffob5ojpifhlno4cdy6bd3offq-story.html?fbclid=IwAR0Cxox5z4R7znLiUzOggLcqycNfw3CEhRtBy49eiw1ezzKydlDqAVrnuoY

  • Reply April 3, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    • Vicki Mart
      Reply April 3, 2020

      Vicki Mart

      It has gotten publicity. Troy Day – Paul told us to preach the word. I see nothing concerning the venue in it. I do see the anointing, the unction and signs following when it is preached.

    • Reply April 3, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      Vicki Mart WHO did ? RHB did – yes he did but he also got FL to open for church services + 3 other states

  • Reply April 3, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    OK sorry for not posting this earlier but it has been some Friday Joe Absher Isara Mo Joseph Castillo work of the ministry FL order was overturned 2 more states followed Church service is now deemed essential – – – one got egged, one car trouble, one in Africa will report later but I would like to point out that some ppl just blab Many of those are on FB cause they aint got nothing better to do and are NOT involved in direct ministry Hence I am posting 24hrs later being busy all day directing a new media and church security ministry as I have for the bast 20+decades PPL need to understand that we are all in a war zone – spiritual war When they blab about active ministers with wrongful criticism even when passive aggressive they open SPIRITUAL doors through which active ministers get attacked for REAL I am calling upon yalls attention for prayer against such I may even tag William DeArteaga as he is preparing his book on demon warfare and I believe this is an important point – with their blab on FB ppl open spiritual doors through which demons attack ministers It is for real !

    • Joe Absher
      Reply April 3, 2020

      Joe Absher

      God speed

    • Reply April 4, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      yeah I see not much response – oh well

  • Joe Absher
    Reply April 3, 2020

    Joe Absher

    1 Timothy 6:12 KJV — Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.

  • Reply April 4, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    RT James Michael Sanders Brothers and sisters be encouraged and keep reaching the lost for your Jesus. – how do we do that under the circumstances ? anoint them digitally ?

    • James Michael Sanders

      Troy Day brother if you think the Holy Spirit requires oil and human touch to move I don’t know how to help you understand your questions.

      Does He use oil and human touch? Absolutely. But He’s certainly not limited

    • Reply April 4, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      James Michael Sanders the BIBLE is pretty specific about it now Cant just disregard the BIBLE can we

    • James Michael Sanders

      Troy Day of course not. I love Jesus and His Word, they are one. I love and treasure every single word in the Bible. Which is why part of how I know God is not limited. I don’t just pray over the sick inside the building we call the church in America. I pray over the sick everywhere I go and every chance I get literally. If I don’t have oil on me I don’t just say to the person, “oh well we aren’t at the church building, I don’t have my oil on me, so we can’t believe God to come upon you now, shucks.”

      If I have the oil I certainly obey and apply it and lay hands and pray the prayer of Faith. But I don’t neglect prayer if I’m without the oil. Why? Because the Holy Spirit lives inside of me and He’s the life giving healing force not me or the actual oil that is symbolic.

      Listen brother, my 9yr old daughter is a heart child. She’s had 3 open heart surgeries. After her first surgery at birth she literally died in front of my wife, full staff at Philadelphia Children’s hospital and myself. She was completely dead. Flatlined on the telemetry unit (I read heart monitors as part of my job and my wife is a Nurse.) She had already lost the color of life in her skin.

      The Holy Spirit spoke clearly to me and said “Pray.”

      I was busy crying and falling to pieces like a man with no hope. Yet I obeyed and shouted to my wife out load what God said in front of everyone. They all looked at me like I was a nut. Except for one young women.

      As we begin to pray (no oil, unable to get to her to lay hands on her) the Holy Spirit moved on my daughter and brought her back to life in front of a room full of doctors, nurses, techs etc. They have an open children’s cardiac room there and all the babies are in the same room recovering.

      The point is, God wasn’t limited in anyway. Yet I certainly know that when we can we should always anoint with oil, lay hands, and obey the Word to to the tee always.

    • Reply April 4, 2020

      Varnel Watson

      James Michael Sanders so we gonna fake the BIBLE to accommodate the devil? Hang a red scarf like Lyndsey Dunn or use a digital app and call it worship? What would the antichrist do differently than that? – make us forsake Assembly

  • Shannel Taylor
    Reply April 4, 2020

    Shannel Taylor

    Praise God!

  • Joe Absher
    Reply April 5, 2020

    Joe Absher

  • Reply April 5, 2020

    Varnel Watson

    oh but wait – this is only the beginning

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