The controversial Florida pastor arrested this week for holding massive services in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic said Wednesday he will not do it again this weekend.
“I actually have no choice at this juncture but to shut the church down this Sunday,” Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay said on his livestream call-in show.
“I have to do this to protect the congregation—not from the virus but from a tyrannical government.”
Howard-Browne—who just two weeks ago declared the church would “never close”—was charged with two misdemeanors on Monday after he failed to heed warnings by the Hillsborough County sheriff.
Howard-Browne kept his followers guessing for two days about whether he would risk re-arrest by inviting them to pack into the church, where he claims he installed machines to prevent them from being infected.
But on his Wednesday show, he finally revealed that he had shut down the building on Monday and would not reopen it, saying he didn’t want church staff or members to be arrested and floating the insane idea that an outsider infected with coronavirus might show up to a service and try to make his faithful sick.
“I'm not caving,” said Howard-Browne, who is free on $500 bail.
In his sermons and his online show, Howard-Browne has been flogging serpentine conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus—claiming it’s a bioweapon created by China to destroy the U.S. economy, that testing for it does not work, and that any vaccine will be a sham.
“The World Health Organization has come in and is using a pandemic to take over not just America, but the whole of the world,” he blustered on his Tuesday night show.
He claims the state order barring large gatherings doesn’t apply to the church because he considers it an “essential service” and that it infringes on freedom of religion.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said earlier this week that his motivation was saving lives.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk, and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week, in danger,” Chronister said at a press conference announcing Howard-Browne’s arrest.
The sheriff noted the The River church could have just live-streamed the service to its 4,000 members, like many other religious institutions are doing.
“I believe there’s nothing more important than faith during a time like this,” Chronister said. “And as a sheriff’s office we would never impede someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort. But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.”