There’s an old saying, that god answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is “no.” Was that the message Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne should have taken from coronavirus, or was the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion paramount?
Before the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida, held two church services on Sunday — each filled with hundreds of parishioners — lawyers from the sheriff’s office and local government pleaded with him to reconsider putting his congregation in danger of contracting the coronavirus.
The pastor ignored them, proceeding with the services at the River at Tampa Bay Church and even providing bus transportation for members who needed a ride.
Church services were held, and Rev. Howard-Browne was arrested for his troubles.
He was booked in jail and freed 40 minutes later after posting a $500 bail. He faces two second-degree misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.
Granted, not the most onerous ride he could have taken, but still, the clash between the right to practice one’s religion and the emergency order were unavoidable. In a simple legal analysis, the former trumps the latter, as the constitutional protections aren’t eliminated upon executive fiat, and the reverend didn’t force anyone to attend his church services who didn’t choose to go. It’s not as if his parishioners were unaware of the risks, unaware that coronavirus was in the air, and yet they chose god over safety. Isn’t that their right?
On Monday, Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County said he had obtained an arrest warrant for Mr. Howard-Browne for “intentionally and repeatedly” defying emergency orders mandating that people maintain social distance and stay at home.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger,” Sheriff Chronister, who is a Republican, said at a news conference in Tampa. “Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”
While it may not have been Sheriff Chronister’s goal to “stop anyone from worshipping,” that was nonetheless what he did. While it was possible that the church could have held services through other means, say via Zoom, the right to conduct services in the manner deemed most appropriate by the pastor is part of the bundle of free exercise of religion; the secular state doesn’t get to decide how god is to be worshiped.
But the other side of the problem is that these choices didn’t impact only those who decided to go to church, but everyone with whom these parishioners came into contact. If a person believes that his god wants him to go on a 50-day fast and he ends of dying of starvation, it can be easily chalked up to a person who made a bad choice and paid for it. His religion, his choice, his death.
But everyone who attended this service made a choice that could subsequently affect a great many people who chose not to risk infection. They would go to the market to buy food, where other people who didn’t share their devotion would shop as well. They might have jobs preparing other people’s food. Their religious choice wasn’t just about them, but involved the potentially hundreds of people with whom they came into contact. These nice folks didn’t make the choice to congregate in the name of someone else’s god. Should they be subject to infection because someone else was a true believer?
The irony in Florida is that while local governments have issued emergency orders, the state has not, although that’s supposed to change in odd ways.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said on Monday that he would sign an order codifying local rules urging people to remain indoors, but only in Southeast Florida, from Key West to West Palm Beach, the most densely populated stretch of the state where many restrictions were already in place. The region accounts for about 60 percent of Florida’s more than 5,700 coronavirus cases, Mr. DeSantis said.
South Florida, or god’s waiting room as it’s known up north, is certainly as rife for pandemic as any place on earth, but it’s hardly the only place where coronavirus can strike. The virus will spread as it does, regardless of any governor’s jingoistic assumptions.
He has blamed some of the contagion on travelers from New York and Louisiana fleeing hot zones there and ordered those visitors to quarantine. Florida has closed restaurants except for takeout and delivery, urged people 65 or older to stay home, suspended vacation rentals and taken other steps, but it has not ordered a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses or beaches.
Concerns that “hot spots” like New York and Louisiana are the source of the virus aren’t irrational, but then, what about the right to travel between the united states? Gov. DeSantis has been widely faulted for his refusal to order all Florida residents to shelter in place, while images of people drinking shots off other people’s beach buttocks went viral.
The prosecution of Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne for doing what the First Amendment entitles him to do would be hard to maintain under the best of circumstances. It may well be irresponsible and reckless, but religion isn’t exactly rational in the first place. But when the governor refuses to close beaches and non-essential services, even a cursory argument of public safety frays at the edges. If kids can cavort on the beaches of Daytona, it’s hard to contend that it’s a crime for a reverend to hold a service to pray to god.
Nothing brings out challenges to our constitutional rights like an emergency, be it war or pandemic, when the normal interrelationship of rights that’s difficult enough to navigate becomes facially irreconcilable. In a different world, maybe the preacher would conclude that god would prefer his believers to survive and allow some leniency to whatever religious rules are otherwise inviolate. But maybe the Rev. Howard-Browne sought god’s advice about whether to forego Sunday services, and god answered his prayer? God works in mysterious ways, or so they tell me.