While I initially wasn’t sure how this could work in terms of actual prosecutions, arrests of people who violate shelter in place orders or bans on larger gatherings have been taking place. It started with hosts of parties in New Jersey and Maryland being hauled in by the cops over the weekend. Yesterday we received a bit of foreshadowing that houses of worship were under scrutiny when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to start shutting down churches and synagogues, perhaps permanently. And now, in Florida, we’ve seen what may be the clearest sign of these dystopian times yet. The pastor of a Tampa mega-church has been arrested for holding services for the faithful. (Associated Press)

Florida officials have arrested the pastor of a megachurch after detectives say he held two Sunday services with hundreds of people and violated a safer-at-home order in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

According to jail records, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities Monday afternoon in Hernando County, where he lives. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. Bail was set at $500, according to the jail’s website, and he was released after posting bond.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a news conference Monday that he negotiated with the attorney of Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne to turn himself in to authorities in Hernando County. His church is located in Tampa.

From the descriptions being given, the Pastor’s church does sound as if they were taking all of the social distancing guidelines into account. They claim to have enforced a six-foot separation rule between family groups in the pews. They also sanitized the entire facility both before and after the service. Hand sanitizer was made available to all congregants and shaking hands was discouraged.

So should that have been enough? There were “hundreds” of people at the service (attendance not specified) but it’s a really large church with plenty of room for people to spread out. The Sheriff’s Department is taking a hard line here, saying “Shame on this pastor, their legal staff and the leaders of this staff for forcing us to do our job.”

The Pastor clearly plans to fight this in court. He’s being charged with “unlawful assembly,” which is always a frightening term under any circumstances when you consider that the First Amendment contains the phrase, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” That’s one argument that the church’s attorneys will use in court. The other, of course, is freedom of religion. They also have some emotional cards to play if this were to actually go before a jury. When do people most need the comfort and solace of their spiritual leaders and faith-based community if not during a crisis like the one currently facing the world?

The pastor is also charged with violating a public health emergency order. Florida does grant some rather sweeping powers to the governor during a declared public health emergency, which definitely applies to this situation. But man… the optics of dragging a pastor before a judge and locking him up or fining his church for the crime of holding services are simply awful.

Sadly, we have lived to see interesting times. In Rhode Island, we have the police stopping cars based on what state they are arriving from and the National Guard monitoring who is arriving at train stations, airports and bus terminals. In Boston, police officers have been seen stopping couples walking on the sidewalk and asking them what business they have that brings them out in public. And now a pastor has been taken to jail. I fully understand how serious the pandemic is and the need to minimize the spread of the virus as much as possible, but it’s impossible to escape the chills that run down one’s spine hearing stories like these.