Hours after he was arrested for holding worship services during the coronavirus pandemic in violation of a "safer-at-home" order Monday, leader of River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, Florida, pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, said he's now getting death threats and shots were fired at the church's sign.
Howard-Browne made the claims during a Facebook Live broadcast where he said the threats were stirred by “religious bigotry and hatred” in the media which forced him to make his Twitter and Instagram accounts private, and he called police to report the shots fired at the church.
“The media are stirring up every kind of religious bigotry and hatred right now. People firing shots last night at the church sign from the highway. We went this morning there was no bullet holes. We did report it but the police say unless you can show where the bullet landed, but I mean the guys, security were there. They could hear the gun going off and then the death threats, to the ministry and to the staff. It’s beyond the pale. So people have basically, literally lost their ever-loving minds,” Howard-Browne said.
It was not immediately clear which sheriff’s office was called to report the attack on his church but an official at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which announced his arrest Monday, told The Christian Post that they have no record of the alleged gunfire incident at River at Tampa Bay Church.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said Howard-Browne was arrested at his home in Hernando County around 1:30 p.m. Monday for intentionally and repeatedly hosting church services with hundreds of members in attendance, despite knowing he was in violation of orders set in place by President Trump, the Gov. of Florida, the CDC and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group.
The specific second degree misdemeanors Howard-Browne was arrested for are unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.
His actions were a direct violation of Executive Order 20-05, which went into effect on March 20, limiting gatherings, including faith-based gatherings, to less than 10 people. He was also violating the Safer-At-Home Order, which went into effect on March 27, advising Hillsborough County residents to remain in their homes as much as possible to create greater social distancing and reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, the sheriff’s office said.
Officials explained that on Friday, and again on Sunday, personnel and legal staff from the Sherriff’s Office spoke with attorneys representing the church in an attempt to educate them on the orders in place and the dangerous environment they were creating for their members and the community, but Howard-Browne and his church leaders chose not to comply.
“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,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister. “The River at Tampa Bay has an advantage over most places of worship, because they have access to technology that allows them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast television for the more than 4,000 members to watch from the safety of their homes.”
Howard-Browne, who is now being represented by Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family, said his decision to keep his church open is in defense of the First Amendment.
“My story doesn’t change. I understand what the media said. I understand what the sheriff said. There’s another whole side about that which I’m not gonna go into that. The sheriff’s doing the best job that he can. I understand I got thrown under the bus which, that’s fine. I’m a big boy, I can take it. I understood. I knew this was coming. I thought it was gonna happen yesterday (Sunday) it didn’t, it happened today. But we have forced a national debate on the First Amendment. And it’s not about a virus. It’s about the church being a[n] essential service to the community where the church can meet and take care of the people. That’s the whole thing,” he said.
Howard-Browne said people have been asking him what he plans to do regarding the situation and he noted that he will make another announcement this week concerning that while noting that there are people in his church who carry guns.
“Our people pack. It’s just because that’s our church, but we’re not violent people. We’re just there to protect our people. And we’re certainly not gonna have a shootout with the sheriffs. I mean, you have to be crazy to even want to do that. All of that stuff is just nonsense. We’re not looking at having a showdown at the O.K. Corral. A warrant was served for my arrest which I surrendered myself. Was taken in and was booked,” he said, showing his mugshot.
He argued that people need to open their eyes and pay attention to what is happening in the world and insisted that the measures being taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus aren't what they seem.
“A lot of people, they don’t understand what’s going on. You see, I understand because I’ve preached on this for years,” he said, pointing to his first book, The Killing of Uncle Sam: The Demise of the United States of America.
“There’s a thousand footnotes in here, the bibliography is 15 pages long. I explain everything that’s going on in this nation at this time,” he said.
In summary of the book on Amazon explains that “the book captures details of the last 200 years of American history that mainstream media does not want you to know. It dissects the ‘legalized’ system of the private central banks that has gone unchecked, and delivers gut-wrenching truths about the real domestic and foreign enemies of the United States.” Howard-Browne also touted his other books, Killing the Planet: How a Financial Cartel Doomed Mankind discussing vaccines and Socialism Under The Microscope.
“That’s why I want to tell everybody, pray for the president that he does the right thing. And pray for every elected official. Even pray for the sheriff of Hillsborough County because they are under tremendous pressure,” he said.
“I think, basically, to shut down now, which is being extended to the end of April, I think it’s gonna get even crazier. I’m not ashamed to be arrested for the First Amendment of the United States,” he continued, noting that’s what the charges against him amount to.
“I know the sheriff said we can’t hide behind the First Amendment, but we can because I was sworn in as a citizen of the Constitutional Republic of the United States and I raised my hand to pledge to defend the Constitution of America against enemies foreign and domestic,” he said. “The nation is under attack and whatever you give up this side you’ll never get it back.”
He argued that it makes no sense that churches are being closed yet Walmart, Costco and other stores like Lowe’s Home Improvement were being allowed to operate and restaurants were being allowed to serve takeout despite a clear risk of spreading the virus.
“As long as you can keep Lowes open and Walmart open and Costco and every other place and you go in there, talk about social distancing. I mean it’s insane. There’s so many holes in this thing. Even the people who deliver the food … how do you know where the food’s been cooked? Who’s making it? How do you know that they don’t have the virus?” he asked.
“Somebody said, 'Well, they’re gonna catch it at the church.' I beg to differ, they’re at church one Sunday morning and six-and-a-half days a week they’re everywhere else. How do you know it wasn’t the last trolley where you put your groceries in that wasn’t infected? How do you know it wasn’t the last restroom you went into? You don’t actually know. I know America is fighting with each other right now, which it’s the whole narrative man. Divide and conquer,” he said.
“Just get everybody fighting each other and everybody has an idea of why somebody is doing what they’re doing, but they don’t know. They can only suspect or surmise,” he added.
He said he’s not insisting on gathering because he’s worried about losing money.
“Money is not the issue when it comes to the Constitution of the United States,” he said.
“You think the founding fathers didn’t know what viruses were?” he said, urging people to stop and think and not accept what is being fed to them on television.
He said he plans to “follow the Holy Ghost” on how to proceed and maybe by the weekend people will know his next move.
“God is on the side of the Church,” he said. “And the body of Christ we pray. We have a God who answers by fire and He hears from Heaven.”