A statement on the church’s website, dated March 18, reads in part: “We feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community, more than ever before.” The same statement refers to the church as an “essential service” people “expect” to stay open, comparing it to hospitals, police, and firefighters.
On March 17, Howard-Browne told his congregation: "We are not stopping anything. I've got news for you, this church will never close. The only time the church will close is when the Rapture is taking place,” as reported by Orlando Weekly. As The Daily Beast reports, the pastor even provided bus service for people to get to service.
Hillsborough County, where the church is located, issued a safer-at-home order effective March 27. The order directs people to stay home unless they’re doing essential work or going out to get medicine or groceries. Gatherings are limited to fewer than 10 people, including religious gatherings, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times.
According to the video of a press conference posted on Facebook, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the pastor “put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk.”
As Daily Kos has covered in the past, the Life Tabernacle Church in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana area has defied orders and had hundreds of people arrive for service already. As the Associated Press reported, on Sunday, roughly 500 people appeared. In spite of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s “stay at home” order, Solid Rock Church held in-person church services on Sunday, as reported by WXYZ.
Also on Sunday, as The New York Times first reported, a private, Christian college located in Lynchburg, Virginia made headlines. After its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., insisted on keeping the school open and welcoming students back from spring break, close to a dozen students reportedly came down with symptoms that suggest potential COVID-19 infection.
Religion clearly has an important role in a lot of people’s lives. For people of faith, religious community can be an enormous source of comfort and strength during hard times; it’s understandable that a global pandemic would be one of those instances. What religious leaders should be doing with their power, however, is encouraging people to tune in and worship from the safety of their homes—not encouraging people to put their own health, and the health of their surrounding communities, in danger.