USA: Megachurch pastor ignores public health regulations
This case explores the responsibilities of religious leaderships.
Themes: Freedom of religion or belief, legitimate limitations, public health grounds, COVID-19
Over a million people died from COVID-19 in the United States of America. By April 2020, every state in the United States had issued guidelines or orders limiting social interaction in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. Most states set out some exemptions for religious gatherings in their directives with the aim of balancing religious freedom with the need for social distancing practices.
Then Vice President Mike Pence said that churches should not host groups bigger than 10 people, in line with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation that gatherings of more than 10 people be cancelled and that small gatherings maintain social distancing measures of 6 feet between participants.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia specified in their orders that religious gatherings could take place, but only if limited to 10 people or fewer. Around a third of states allowed religious gatherings to continue without any limit on their size. However, many religious leaders chose to either cancel, limit, or move worship online to comply with the CDC guidelines, despite state-level exemptions.
Florida was one of the last states to issue a state-wide stay-at-home executive order, which deemed religious worship services ‘essential’ and therefore exempt. Based on infection rates at the local level, some counties in Florida had previously introduced county-level restrictions. Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida, chose to ignore one such stay-at-home order issued by Hillsborough County. He continued to hold worship services for up to 500 people at a time with no social distancing measures in place, ignoring pleas from local officials. He was subsequently arrested and charged with a misdemeanour.
This case highlights the need for religious communities and leaders to be aware of when the external dimension of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including the right to assemble for worship, may in fact be limited legitimately by the state. Ignoring public health emergency measures entirely puts vulnerable community members at risk during a pandemic. At the same time, a blanket ban on gathering for worship with no exceptions is disproportionate.