Tampa-area law enforcement officials issued an arrest warrant on Monday (US time) and charged a local pastor who has defied coronavirus-related bans on large gatherings, instead encouraging crowds as big as 500 people at one service this weekend, a sheriff said.

The Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne, told his congregants at the River at Tampa Bay Church on March 15 that he would close services only for the Rapture and that closings were for "pansies", was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order.

He turned himself in and was charged with a second-degree misdemeanour, which carries a penalty of up to two months in jail and a US$500 fine, said his attorney, Mat Staver with the firm Liberty Counsel. He paid his bond and was at home on Monday night.

Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River Church. Photo / Hernando County Jail via AP
Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River Church. Photo / Hernando County Jail via AP

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and State Attorney Andrew Warren announced the charges at a news conference on Monday, Fox 13 reported.

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"There is nothing more important than faith during a time like this. And as a sheriff's office we'd never impede someone's ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort, but practising those beliefs has to be done safely," Chronister said in a video of his Monday news conference posted on Fox. "Last night I made a decision to seek an arrest warrant for the pastor of a local church who intentionally and repeatedly chose to disregard orders set in place by the president, the governor, the CDC" and local emergency officials.

"His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands who may interact with them in danger," Chronister said.

Chronister was asked at the news conference about social media rumours that the church had an arsenal of weapons, and whether officials were concerned. The sheriff said that in addition to weapons, Howard-Browne "has a vast security force he has deployed." Concern for safety, he said, was the reason the pastor wasn't arrested at the crowded church service, and instead officials talked to his attorneys about Howard-Browne turning himself in.

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The River Church. Photo / AP
The River Church. Photo / AP

A message left with the church wasn't immediately answered on Monday, but the River's website displayed a church statement dated March 18 that said it wouldn't be closing:

"We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty. Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time."

Liberty Counsel issued a statement Monday, saying the church has spent $100,000 on a special air purification system, gives hand sanitiser to all who enter services and maintains a safe distance between parishioners.

"The Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like swiss cheese," the Orlando-based firm said in the statement, adding that religious groups should get exemptions the way some other businesses have.

"I am astounded that Sheriff Chronister used his press conference to lecture about the Bible," the statement reads. "This is entirely inappropriate for a government official to take sides on religion."

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The county's "Safer at Home" order, issued Friday, has exemptions that include essential military personnel, mass transit workers, farmers, journalists and contractors. It also says businesses able to maintain six feet of distance between people can operate. While the Liberty Counsel statement said the River church has "enforced the six-foot distance between family groups," the office of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren said deputies witnessed the rule being violated firsthand Sunday when some 500 people were at the church.

Warren told The Washington Post that the law is settled as far as states being able to limit religious activity under certain circumstances. There is a compelling government interest of stopping the virus, the order is narrowly tailored to be temporary, and the church - like other services - can still reach its audience online.

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News site Pix-11 in New York reported Monday that over the weekend, police broke up a bat mitzvah in Lakewood, New Jersey, that had 40 to 50 people in attendance. Police issued a citation for a violation to the state's stay-at-home order as well as a charge of child neglect, State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan told Pix-11.

In a video posted March 15 by the group Right Wing Watch, Howard-Browne encourages members in a packed church to greet one another by shaking hands.

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"This has to be the safest place. If you cannot be safe in church, you in serious trouble. We are not stopping anything. I have news for you. This church will never close. The only time the church is closed is when the Rapture is taking place. This Bible School is open because we're raising up revivalists, not pansies," he says to hearty applause and cheers.

Howard-Browne, originally from South Africa, has been invited to the White House to pray over President Trump. In July 2017, he posted an image of people with their hands on Trump, praying.

"Supernatural Wisdom, Guidance and Protection - who could ever even imagine - wow - we are going to see another great spiritual awakening," he wrote on Facebook alongside the image.