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Florida pastor arrested for holding church during COVID-19 restrictions

Florida pastor arrested for holding church during COVID-19 restrictions
Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor at The River at Tampa Bay Church, was arrested for "intentionally and repeatedly" disregarding state health orders. Photo by Hernando County Sheriff's Office | License Photo

March 30 (UPI) -- Authorities on Monday arrested a Florida pastor who held church services over the weekend as officials across the country crack down on people violating restrictions on gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor at The River at Tampa Bay Church, was arrested for "intentionally and repeatedly" disregarding state health orders. The sheriff said the church gatherings "put his congregation and our community in danger."

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Howard-Browne held two services Sunday despite a county order requiring residents to stay home and banning gatherings of more than 10 people. Chronister said the pastor was arrested on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.

He was released from jail on $500 bond.

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Howard-Browne spoke about the controversy at one of the Sunday services.

"I know that they're trying to beat me up, you know, having the church operational, but we are not a non-essential service," he told the congregation.

"Not only the right of free speech but the right to peaceful assembly and to practice what we believe," he added. "Suddenly we are demonized because we believe God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some sort of kooks."

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Meanwhile, in New York, police arrested a Brooklyn cafe owner, Vasil Pando, for running an illegal bar and gambling setup at Miami II Sports Cafe. Authorities charged him with reckless endangerment and criminal nuisance and released him.

Police found the cafe serving customers inside the building, despite a state-wide order requiring all restaurants to halt serving customers inside.

In New Jersey, police arrested a couple -- Eliezer Silber and Miriam Silver -- on child endangerment charges after hosting a gathering of between 40 and 50 people for a wedding Sunday. Police in Lakewood said there were so many people at the home, people were blocking the street.

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order on March 21 banning large gatherings of people for non-essential activities. Police have arrested people involved in at least two other weddings in the state.

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