A Time To Preach

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.

16 thoughts on “A Time To Preach

  1. Skink

    This happened without a peep from even the casually knowledgeable. Small fine and no big deal. Perhaps until it happens again, but only perhaps.

    The Swamp Governor is another thing. First, he ordered the interdiction of Northeasterners at some, but not all airports. They gotta hole-up for 14 days if they fly into MIA, FTL, ORL and a couple others. But no worry Pensacola, Tallahassee, Port Charlotte or Fort Myers. There, he did something. Not exactly lawful, but who noticed?

    Some fella from Mudlick must have whispered to the Guv about a newfangled contraption that rolls on wheels over something called “roads,” as he decided to put roadblocks on I-10, I-75 and I-95 to keep out the northern sickies. The dozens of US Highways, state roads, loops, cuts and dirt paths entering the Swamp didn’t need the same. Unlawful? You betcha, and in a big way. But he did something, and it was something no one else thought of, so it was probably okay.

    The moves are hardly effective. It’s like robbing half a bank.

    Because I’m both a lawyer and a social butterfly, I talk to folks–lawyers and not. Smart people, all, and I expected some not-getting it from the nots. But it’s always surprising to see how many lawyers just don’t get it. Why don’t they see the constitutional grab from robbing half a bank?

    1. SHG Post author

      I was rolling down I-10 in the Healey with a NY plate on the back and no plate on the front, because I can, and saw the bubble gum machine behind me light up. Confident that he couldn’t do a damn thing about my lack of seatbelts, I kicked it into overdrive until I hit the Okeechobee, whereupon he passed me, saluted and acknowledged my constitutional rights. Little did he know about the NY bagels I had hidden inside the kilo of coke. They’ll pay anything in Boca for a decent bagel.

  2. orthodoc

    Not that I am (necessarily) likening a church to a Roach Motel, but maybe the solution is to let parishioners in to church, but not let them out. Or more practically: anybody is free to attend services, but if they do, they are subject to quarantine. If the devout want to catch the disease, god bless them. Their rights, however, end where my nose (and entire nasopharynx) begins

    1. SHG Post author

      How do you supposed the 14-day quarantine is enforced, armed guards outside every person’s home, or good will and trust? And what do they do 7 days later, the next Sunday?

  3. Angrychiatty

    Ever see those people who “assert their constitutional rights” by videotaping some location for the sole purpose of inciting a loud confrontation with the minimum wage security guard? I understand it’s your “right” to gather together to praise Jesus or whomever but for Pete’s sake is this really the time? Is this the way to do it? I know, I know. Slippery slope and all that.

  4. C. Dove

    I see what you did there. Sure, Florida Man was prevented from preaching to the masses. And yes, his followers were not allowed to peacefully assemble. But the ‘Rona don’t distinguish between church and state. So which constitutional amendment(s) or, more specifically, clause(s) should the trolley be allowed to roll over?

    1. Skink

      None–that’s why it’s the Constitution and why those rights should never be surrendered, even in times of viral insurrection. But I only litigate it every day, so I could be constitutionally-stupid.

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