Wednesday 1 April 2020

Arrested Florida Pastor's Legal Team Fires Back Against 'Discriminatory Application of the Law'

Attorneys for a Florida pastor arrested Monday for holding services during a mandated lockdown are firing back at public officials in Tampa and arguing current policies are discriminatory against churches.
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church was arrested Monday on charges of unlawful assembly and violating Hillsborough County’s “safer-at-home” order, which bans groups of 10 people or more from gathering during the coronavirus outbreak.
The arrest was in response to local law enforcement officials targeting the pastor after images online showed hundreds of people attending a Sunday service at his church.
Prior to the pastor’s arrest, public officials held a news conference in which Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and other officials publicly criticized Howard-Browne for his alleged “reckless disregard for human life.”
“I believe there’s nothing more important than faith during a time like this. And as a sheriff’s office we would never impede someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort,” Chronister told reporters.
“But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely,” he added.
Howard-Browne bonded out of jail Monday and retained the legal services of the nonprofit Orlando-based Liberty Counsel.
A legal representative for the pastor is arguing the government is overreaching.
“Sheriff Chad Chronister’s press conference was a shaming spectacle full of anger, lacking of facts, complete with a theological lecture about the Bible,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver told Fox News. “This over a second-degree misdemeanor before the arrest occurred.”
“The sheriff and Hillsborough County will get a lesson on the Constitution and discriminatory application of the law,” he said.
Liberty Counsel also released a statement defending the pastor and slamming public officials for clamping down on religious services while other “essential” businesses and services remain open.
In the statement, Staver argued that the order banning gatherings should not have applied to Howard-Browne or the church, as church officials maintained stringent social distancing guidelines during both of Sunday’s services.
“Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding six-foot distancing, it went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people,” Staver said.
“Contrary to Sheriff Chronister’s allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was ‘reckless,’ the actions of Hillsborough Country and the Hernando County Sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings.”
Staver also added the Hillsborough County administrative order “has so many exceptions it looks like swiss cheese.”
“The order allows a wide range of commercial operations that are either specifically exempt or exempt if they can comply with a six-foot separation. Yet, if the purpose of your meeting is religious, the county prohibits it with no exception for the six-foot separation,” he said.
“The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body. Neither the Constitution nor Florida law protecting churches and the free exercise of religion disappear,” Staver went on. “This order from Hillsborough County is not narrowly tailored to achieve its underlying objective.”
“I was shocked that Sheriff Chad Chronister held his press conference before the arrest was completed. I am astounded that Sheriff Chronister used his press conference to lecture about the Bible,” Staver concluded. “This is entirely inappropriate for a government official to takes sides on religion.”
Liberty Counsel also noted the church took careful precautions to protect the health of its congregation, including enforcing six-foot distancing between groups, offering hand sanitizer, requiring staff to wear gloves and spending $100,000 on a “hospital grade purification system” designed to kill microbes.
The River at Tampa Bay Church has joined other churches across the country in arguing that it is an “essential” business during the country’s health crisis.
“The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty,” the church wrote on Facebook.
Howard-Browne accused media outlets of “stirring up religious bigotry and hate” on Twitter Monday, but has since made his account private.
The pastor faces a punishment of up to 60 days in jail and fines totaling up to $500 for violating Hillsborough County social distancing guidelines.

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