Coronavirus: Charges dropped against Florida pastor who defied stay-at-home order

TAMPA, Fla. — Charges were dropped against a west-central Florida pastor who was arrested for violating social distancing guidelines by conducting two large Sunday services, prosecutors said Friday.

Rodney Howard-Browne, co-founder of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, was arrested in late March and booked on charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency.

The office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said Friday it would not pursue the case against Howard-Browne, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

“In deciding whether to criminally prosecute violations of stay-at-home orders, compliance is our North Star,” Warren said in a statement. “Each case is unique, and each one will be assessed based on the facts and the law. But, in general, if the person who was arrested poses no ongoing threat to public health, then our tendency will be not to prosecute the case beyond the arrest.”

Warren said that since Howard-Browne’s arrest, the pastor “has maintained responsible social distancing on his church campus while engaging with community leaders in a dialogue about the best path forward for his congregation.”

“Our office has determined that further prosecution or punishment would not provide increased protections for our community and is not needed to achieve any additional change in Pastor Howard-Browne’s behavior,” the statement said."

Howard-Browne and his wife founded The River at Tampa Bay Church in 1996, CBN News reported. Howard-Browne also runs Revival Ministries International.

Attorney Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, which represented Howard-Browne, released a statement Friday calling the Howard-Browne’s arrest “politically motivated.”

“Neither the pastor nor The River at Tampa Bay Church did anything wrong," Staver said. “We are pleased that all the charges have been dropped. It is now time to move forward with healing and restoration.”

Attorney Patrick Leduc, who also represented Howard-Browne, said Warren made the right call.

“The entirety of the county’s safer-at-home order is unconstitutional. It violated separation of powers and the delegation doctrine," Leduc said. "They arrested the pastor on an illegal order.”

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