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Megachurch pastors defy coronavirus pandemic, insisting on right to worship

Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

At any other time, in a predominantly Christian nation that enshrines freedom of worship in the Constitution, the news would sound absurd or terrifying: "Pastor arrested after holding church services."

But that's what happened this week when sheriff's deputies handcuffed a Florida minister for violating municipal stay-at-home orders by gathering hundreds to worship.

Police said the minister, the Rev. Rodney Howard-Brown of the River at Tampa Bay, showed "reckless disregard for human life" by potentially exposing his congregants to the coronavirus.

Brown, now out on bail, has complained of "religious bigotry." The church maintains that the right to assemble in worship is a fundamental freedom that cannot be abridged even in an emergency, and cites early American religious dissidents, including Baptists and Quakers, as examples of the religious persecution that the nation's founders would have found intolerable.

The coronavirus pandemic -- along with federal guidelines advising against large gatherings and state orders shutting down non-essential services -- has spurred most houses of worship to go online. But several megachurches have revolted, pitting public health concerns against claims of religious freedom and competing views on what to do amid tumult. Some religious leaders maintain that it is precisely in times of despair and disorder that the faithful need to congregate.

In Louisiana, police issued a summons Tuesday to the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., near Baton Rouge, after he held services for 1,200 people violation of state limits.


"Never been more proud to be persecuted for the faith like my savior," the Rev. Tony Spell shot back.

While more than half of Americans are under orders to stay at home, states have approached religious groups in different ways.

In Ohio, a shutdown order exempts religious gatherings. The same goes for Pennsylvania and New York, though both states have strongly discouraged worship centers from opening. One Ohio megachurch, Solid Rock near Cincinnati, has continued to meet despite harsh criticism from locals. In California, "faith-based services that are provided through streaming or other technology" are deemed "essential," but not those that meet in person.

Legal experts say that while religious groups generally have wide latitude to worship under the First Amendment and state-by-state religious freedom laws, rules shutting down worship are legally sound if they apply across-the-board to all types of group meetings.


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