While many houses of worship have switched to online services, some churches continue to put parishioners at risk

By Claudia Harmata
April 02, 2020 04:50 PM
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Credit: Rodney & Adonica Howard-Browne/Facebook

Florida’s statewide stay-at-home order still allows public gatherings for religious and worship services, despite a nationwide recommendation to limit gatherings to 10 people to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a 30-day stay-at-home order to go into effect Friday, after several weeks of pressure from lawmakers and the public. He announced the decision with an executive order, which says residents may only leave home for essential businesses and activities.

The governor then listed the activities he deemed “essential,” the first of which was “attending religious services in churches, synagogues and houses of worship,” even though many churches across the country have switched to online services to protect parishioners amid the outbreak.

The decision comes just days after the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa issued a warrant for the arrest of evangelical pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who held two church services in front of thousands of members at his mega church earlier this month despite the urging from health and government officials to practice social distancing. The services violated the county and state’s orders requiring gatherings be fewer than 10 people, Orlando Weekly reports.

While the new executive order seems to deem Howard-Browne’s church “essential,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced on Facebook Live Wednesday that such mass services will not be allowed in Tampa.

She told her constituents that they “can go back to church in other areas” but not in Hillsborough County. “So, what occurred at The River Church on Sunday, it was not allowable then and it’s not allowable today, and it’s not allowable Sunday either,” Castor said. “It was a very reckless decision on the part of that pastor, and we are able to have more stringent regulations than the state’s order.”

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Howard-Browne’s church is not the only house of worship holding large, in-person services. A Louisiana church has also continued to keep doors open to its worshippers, ignoring a statewide stay-at-home order.

The Life Tabernacle church outside of Baton Rouge held its morning services on Sunday. Although the Associated Press estimated that around 500 churchgoers were in attendance, Rev. Tony Spell told The Los Angeles Times that over 1,200 came to worship.

“We’re free people. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re not going to cower,” Spell said during the sermon, the outlet reported. “We’re not breaking any laws.” The reverend also claimed that so far no congregants have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Life Tabernacle Church in East Baton Rouge
| Credit: Google Maps

The church’s actions were in direct violation to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide stay-at-home order, which went into effect on March 22, and also banned gatherings of over 10 people, with the exception of essential businesses.

According to The Baton Rouge Advocate, Spell was arrested on Tuesday and now faces six misdemeanor charges, which carry a maximum punishment of $500 and up to six months in jail.

“He will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community,” Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran told the outlet. “We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”

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