We recently discussed defiant ministers who have refused to end large-scale services like Pastor Tony Spell in Louisiana. Now Florida police have criminally charged Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church for defying pandemic orders with a mass service.
Fox 29 reports that law enforcement tried to dissuade Howard-Browne but the minister refused to yield and exposed his congregation and their neighbors to spreading the virus. He is charged with “unlawful assembly” and “violation of public health emergency order.”
Cities and states receive considerable deference in the enforcement of such orders during a pandemic. While ministers like Spell have charged that such orders violate the free exercise of religion, such claims are made more difficult by the wide array of online services being offered temporarily by churches.
Over 30 years ago, I wrote a law review article entitled “Laying Hands On Religious Racketeers,” addressing how televangelists and religious leaders should be subject to criminal laws. This is another such example. While the article addressed fraudulent practices, the same analysis applies to public health violations.
There is no question that the order interferes with the exercise of religion but they are neutral on specific religions impacted by the limitations. More importantly, they are based on a compelling state interest that cannot be met absent this measure. Thus, while the order may not appear “narrowly tailored,” it is the only measure that can meet the CDC demands for social distancing at this time.
The decision to hold the services at The River was stunningly reckless. The minister is now likely to be convicted and, forgive the pun, sent up the river as a result.