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Florida pastor arrested after church seen jammed for Sunday service during pandemic

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A Florida pastor was arrested Monday at his home one day after his church was packed with worshippers, despite a local "safer-at-home" order that was designed to help curb the spread of coronavirus, reports CBS Tampa affiliate WTSP-TV. A live-stream of the service at The River at Tampa Bay Church showed its crowded main sanctuary.

According to WTSP, the sheriff told church leaders they were in direct violation of the order that was issued by Hillsborough County officials and went into effect Friday. It requires that businesses and organizations considered essential abide by social distancing guidelines and keep people 6 feet away from each other or shut down.

Service in The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida as seen on a livestream on YouTube on March 29, 2010. WTSP-TV

"We received an anonymous tip that Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne refused a request to temporarily stop holding large gatherings at his church," said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister. "Instead, he was encouraging his large congregation to meet at his church."

Soon after, the sheriff, along with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, filed a pair of charges against Howard-Browne, including unlawful assembly, according to WTSP.

WTSP reported Howard-Browne was booked into the Hernando County Jail and was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules. A violation of the county's "safer-at-home" order is considered second-degree misdemeanors punishable by up to 60 days in jail and fines of up to $500. Howard-Browne posted bond of $500 and was released.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne seen in a booking photo. Hernando County Sheriff's Office

"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," Chronister explained in a press release.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay 6 feet apart and not gather in groups of 50 or more.

In a statement posted earlier this month on Facebook and on its website, the church explained why it's keeping its doors open when so many other places across the state and nation are closing. 

The statement read in part, "In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients. We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. 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.

"Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community, more than ever before."

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