Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Churches remain packed as pastors are arrested and lobby for exemptions to coronavirus lockdown orders

Pastors sue for 'religious liberty' exemptions as thousands of people die across the country from Covid-19

Chris Riotta
New York
Wednesday 01 April 2020 17:49 BST
'We are covered by the First Amendment' Florida megachurch stays open despite coronavirus advice

Packed out megachurches. Pastors facing arrest for violating state orders. Thousands of worshippers defiantly congregating while the coronavirus pandemic rages on in the United States.

Despite the country’s death toll surpassing that of China and nearly 200,000 cases of the novel virus having been confirmed nationwide, reports throughout the week showed some religious leaders continuing to hold church services in states across the country.

On Monday, the head of an Evangelical megachurch in Tampa, Florida was arrested for hosting services in the state as it faced over 5,200 confirmed Covid-19 cases. Rodney Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and violating health emergency rules.

A day later, another pastor was charged with defying public orders in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the Life Tabernacle Church reportedly drew hundreds of parishioners — and protesters — on Tuesday evening.

That pastor, Tony Spell, insisted he would continue holding church services despite the charges against him and said his doors will remain open this coming Sunday.

“We will continue to have church,” Mr Spell said in a Facebook Live video, describing the state orders as a “government overreach” to his followers.

“They are asking us as a government to stop practising our freedom of religion,” he said. “We have a mandate from God to assemble and to gather together and to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Louisiana has also confirmed at least 5,200 cases, though experts said the true figures were likely far higher due to a lack of testing for coronavirus.

Meanwhile, pastors have joined a lawsuit in Texas demanding “religious liberty” exemptions to a local order restricting Houston residents to stay at home amid the pandemic. The order notes that faith leaders may continue to “minister and counsel in individual settings, so long as social distance protocols are followed”.

But at least three pastors have rejected those orders according to the court filings. They were joined in the lawsuit by Republican activist Steven Hotze, Vox reported, whose political action committee was labelled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre.

US health officials have estimated as many as 100,000 to 240,000 deaths resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, as the White House extended guidelines for Americans to continue practising social distancing measures for another 30 days.

Donald Trump initially suggested a “re-opening” of the country could take place on Easter Sunday, saying it would be a “beautiful” day for the hundreds of millions of Americans living under various stay-at-home orders to be allowed out, even if it were somewhat early.

Asked just a week ago when he thought the White House guidelines would end, the president told Fox News: “I think Easter Sunday and you'll have packed churches all over our country, I think it would be a beautiful time.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in