Florida megachurch pastor says he's closing church due to 'tyrannical government'

Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne says he is closing the doors to his church to protect his congregation from "a tyrannical government."

"I actually have no choice at this juncture but to shut the church down this Sunday," Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay, said on his livestream call-in show on Wednesday.

"I have to do this to protect the congregation — not from the virus but from a tyrannical government," he added.

ADVERTISEMENT

His decision comes after Howard-Browne was arrested Monday and charged with misdemeanor counts of unlawful assembly and violating public health rules after hosting two Sunday services at his church.

The church violated social distancing measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus by holding services with nearly 500 people in attendance.

The pastor cited his own concerns that someone might purposefully go into his church and try to infect the congregation with COVID-19 if his doors remained open.

Howard-Browne has gone on record claiming the coronavirus is a bioweapon made by China to destroy the economy of the U.S.

“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 said on his live show.

Howard-Browne had said two weeks ago that the church would "never close."

ADVERTISEMENT

"I'm not making any decisions based on the threats from the Sheriff's office or not — I make decisions based on what the Lord tells me to do," the pastor said. "The Lord told me on Monday, if I don't do this, there's going to be a showdown at the O.K. Corral."

Howard-Browne claimed that last week Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister supported his decision to keep the church open, but later "caved like a deck of cards," adding that the sheriff told him that he couldn't protect the pastor from the media.

"People came after him, and he caved, and I actually feel very sorry for him ... I have actually forgiven him ... I actually personally like him, in the times I've met him."

"I'm not caving," added Howard-Browne, who is now free on a $500 bail. 

The sheriff criticized the pastor for holding services with large numbers of attendees.

"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger," Chronister said Monday.

Chronister said that the sheriff's office would never purposefully impede religious expression, advising Howard-Browne to carry on services through online methods such as livestream videos.

Howard-Browne said that he had a livestream service planned for this upcoming Sunday, and implored anyone watching his livestream to not come to the church.

"Don't go to the church, please, I'm begging anyone watching now," he said.

Howard-Browne previously said the state order canceling large gatherings does not apply to his church because he considers it an "essential service," and any order to try and stop the services infringes on freedoms of religion.

On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisOvernight Health Care: New wave of COVID-19 cases builds in US | Florida to lift all coronavirus restrictions on restaurants, bars | Trump stirs questions with 0 drug coupon plan On The Money: Half of states deplete funds for Trump's 0 unemployment expansion | EU appealing ruling in Apple tax case | House Democrats include more aid for airlines in coronavirus package Florida to lift all COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, bars MORE (R) issued a statewide stay-at-home order but included an exemption for religious services conducted in houses of worship, deeming them "essential business."

DeSantis also signed a second order overriding restrictions set by local governments, according to the Tampa Bay Times, to prevent them from setting restrictions that were more stringent than the state level ones.

Updated at 3:50 p.m.