A divide was marked on March 30 between religious liberty groups when a conservative religious liberty group jumped to the legal defense of an evangelical Christian pastor who was arrested in Florida for ignoring a stay-at-home order. In contrast to this pastor’s behavior and the support he is getting, many of the major religious liberty groups are preaching for caution and to not go to court while the globe is in the midst of a pandemic.
Liberty Counsel is representing Rodney Howard-Browne who is the co-founder of The River at Tampa Bay Church. He has been accused of presiding over two services that were attended by hundreds of congregants while the majority of houses of worship have closed their doors in the interest of protecting the health of their members as well as that of the public at large.
Howard-Browne was charged with misdemeanor offenses of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules because he refused to follow Hillsborough County’s stay-at-home order.
Other religious liberty groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are sticking to their conviction in the belief that states have a strong interest in protecting public health, as long as the government action is limited in time and scope.
Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman, Mat Staver, references the rights given Americans in the1st Amendment for the government to not interfere with the free exercise of religion when he said, “We can’t throw out our constitutional rights even in an emergency.”
This is in stark comparison to what many other religious-liberty lawyers say, that a public health emergency changes the legal calculation. A Becket lawyer, Luke Goodrich said, “The right of religious freedom doesn’t give you carte blanche to threaten the public health of your neighbors.” A lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom said that although some local governments have overstepped and used their power unnecessarily and unfairly, most have sought to accommodate religious groups as much as possible.
Some states, including Texas and Florida, have provided exemptions for religious gatherings, and others are allowing for limited gatherings.
With the upcoming weeks that include the major Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays of Passover, Easter and Ramadan, they may bring heightened tensions both in the U.S. and across the globe as the coronavirus pandemic’s stay-home-orders are still in place in the U.S. and many other countries.