Yet some religious leaders have been directly flouting such orders in order to keep hosting services at their houses of worship, while more still have exploited loopholes in state laws to keep resuming business as usual.
On Monday, Rodney Howard-Browne, a pastor in Tampa, Florida, was arrested for violating a safer-at-home order by hosting hundreds of people for Sunday services at his megachurch. Despite the express orders of Gov. Ron DeSantis to avoid gatherings of upwards of 10 people, Howard-Browne continued to host services, with one livestream showing the attendance of hundreds of patrons. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order, and held on bail of $500.
A Trump supporter who once attended an evangelical Oval Office prayer meeting, Howard-Browne apparently has a longstanding skepticism toward the threat of COVID-19. During a March 22nd sermon, Howard Browne referred to the coronavirus pandemic as a “phantom plague” engineered in a Chinese lab. In a March 18th post on a Facebook page, the ministry defended its right to stay open amidst the pandemic, writing that it hoped the media would “resist the temptation to report in such a way as to exacerbate people’s panic, fear, and anxiety” around the virus.
Most religious institutions have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by holding live-streamed services (or even, in some cases, drive-thru services). And in states like Kansas and Ohio, churches have been classified as exempt from legislation forbidding large in-person gatherings based on the argument that they constitute essential services, giving some religious leaders leeway to continue holding services. Some governors, however, such as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, have urged religious leaders to exercise caution, stating on Twitter, “This is serious. When you are coming together, whether in a church or wherever — this is dangerous.”
Howard Browne is not the only religious leader to defy public health guidelines by insisting on remaining open. At the Life Tabernacle church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, about 500 people gathered for services a day after authorities broke up a funeral service in New Orleans attended by 100 people at that same church. This was in spite of Governor John Bel Edwards mandating that gatherings over 50 people be banned in the state, which has seen a significant spike in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks.
Local news station WQAD8 reported that in Rock Falls, Illinois, which is currently under a state-wide mandate to restrict social gatherings, Pastor Les Funderberg of First Open Bible Church was seen holding services on a livestream posted to Facebook, which was attended by many patrons.
“I know there’s a pandemic, but I’m not running afraid. If God is God, he’s got me! “Funderberg is seen saying in the livestream. “And if he takes me, praise God! What’s the downside of that?”