“Please stay six feet apart,” Miller beseeched churches. “Because that’s the only thing we can see that will flatten that curve. But what I’m seeing here now, that curve in Hillsborough County and in this state is not going to be flattening anytime soon.”
And yet on April 3, Howard-Browne announced in an email to followers that he was suspending in-person services. “I am not doing this because I am backing down,” he wrote, “but we are going to protect our people from tyrannical government. We don’t feel that we can trust our law enforcement agency at this time and we do not want to jeopardize our pastors and expose our congregation to false arrests and the like.” In addition to livestreamed Sunday services, he explained, he would air daily live broadcasts via YouTube and Facebook.
Even online, Howard-Browne is undermining the measures that epidemiologists say are essential for returning to normal life. In his April 6 broadcast, he expressed concern that there might be “daily testing” for the virus.
“We’re not going to succumb to this nonsense, because behind that, they want to bring in the vaccines. The vaccine’s going to hurt more people than ever before,” Howard-Browne said. “The president has already talked about the medication that can help,” he added, a reference to hydroxychloroquine, an unproven coronavirus treatment Trump has promoted aggressively. (In the comments, a viewer wrote, “the blood of JESUS is the vaccine.”)
Howard-Browne’s reach extends far beyond his Tampa megachurch, via his itinerant ministry, books and television presence. Kelly Martinez, who attended a Howard-Browne multi-night revival in the late 2000s when she was a student at Oral Roberts University, described the intense social pressure surrounding the event.
“If you don’t go, you’re not as holy,” Martinez said. She added that it was almost unheard of to question the preacher “because he’s speaking for God.”
Howard-Browne also claimed in the same broadcast that during his career evangelizing around the world, he had been exposed to other viruses but “the Lord always took care of us.” The next day, he tweeted at Trump that he should call off the “Globalist Dogs,” by which he meant “The WHO The CDC Bill Gates UN Soros MSM.”
He went on: “It’s time to get America back to work. It’s time to end the Lockdown America First Stop the Tyranny Their narrative failed #Hydroxychloroquine.”
Playing Politics With A Pandemic
Constitutional experts say there is little legal ambiguity that the government has the ability to protect the public from a dire public health threat. The question, said Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Miami School of Law, is whether these orders “could be viewed as singling out or persecuting congregations. And the answer is no.”
Across the country, state and local orders have banned all large gatherings, not just religious ones. What’s more, she added, “there’s no interest more compelling than saving people’s lives.” Last week, a federal judge in California denied a church’s emergency request to hold Easter services, ruling that the state has the authority to “limit the exercise of religion when faced with a public health crisis.”
Despite the clarity of the constitutional analysis, the Christian right sees the Trump administration as an unprecedented champion of its goals. Last week, Attorney General William Barr told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that he was “very, very concerned” about the impact of stay-at-home orders on religious liberty.
Over Easter weekend, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec, a graduate of Liberty University law school, tweeted, “During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!” On Tuesday, DOJ lawyers backed the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by the Christian right legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom, alleging that a ban on drive-in church services in Greenville, Mississippi, is unconstitutional.
The danger is that even if state and local directives succeed in flattening the curve, weakening these restrictions prematurely could result in new flare-ups. In Hillview, Kentucky, on Easter Sunday, state troopers placed quarantine notices on the windshields of cars parked at Maryville Baptist Church. About 50 people were illegally worshipping inside, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
A protester at the church held up a sign calling Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear a “tyrant.” Beshear insisted that he didn’t intend for anyone to be charged with a crime but simply wanted people to “do the right thing.” As the state’s health commissioner, Steven Stack, put it: “At what point do our rights to gather entitle us to have other people die as a result?”