Tampa megachurch pastor says his arrest sparks debate over First Amendment

A megachurch pastor in Tampa was arrested Monday after leading packed church services Sunday -- despite social distancing orders from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Hours after his arrest, he pleaded 'not guilty.' 

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne says he’s now receiving death threats. He even claims the River at Tampa Bay Church’s outdoor sign has been become a shooting target.

“People have basically literally lost their ever-loving minds,” Browne said in a Facebook video. 

After his arrest Monday for violating Hillsborough County’s “safer at home” order, Pastor Browne declined FOX 13 interview requests and instead went on Facebook and drew a line in the sand, claiming he’s fighting for something much bigger than himself.

“We are forced to national debate on the subject of the First Amendment, again it’s not about a virus, it’s about the church being an essential service to the community and how the church can meet and take care of the people,” claimed Browne. 

READ: Tampa megachurch pastor arrested after leading packed services despite 'safer-at-home' orders

On Sunday, Pastor Browne held two church services for hundreds of his parishioners. His attorney, Mat Staver with the Liberty Counsel, says social distancing was in place along with other protective measures.

However, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister called Pastor Browne’s actions reckless and illegal. And he rejected claims that the church is being targeted -- by those with guns or with badges. 

“This would be no different if it was a gym owner anyone who is encouraging large gatherings. You’re going to be in defiance of this order and find yourself facing the same type of results or outcome that this pastor did,” said Chronister. 



But Staver says Chronister is using this national health crisis to score political points.

“It’s a political grandstand of the highest magnitude. Frankly, it’s insulting and shocking how this was handled,” said Staver. 

RELATED: 634 new cases of coronavirus in Florida; total cases top 6,300

Pastor Brown says during these troubles times, all he’s trying to do is protect the physical well-being of all of his parishioners while providing spiritual guidance. The suggestion that he is looking to get into a gun fight with law-enforcement if they try to shut him down, he says, is preposterous.

“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 wanna do that,” Browne added. 

Sheriff Chronister says if Browne violates the order for a second time, he will be thrown in jail with no bond until a judge can hear his case, which could be weeks from now.   

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