FFRF welcomes police action against religious scofflaws

Law enforcement across the country is cracking down on renegade preachers defying coronavirus restrictions — and that’s the way it should be, affirms the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Zealous ministers nationwide are denying the science of preventive measures and the authority of the state to enforce them, with some even promising that they possess supernatural powers to ward off the coronavirus. Fortunately, we are starting to see officials take action against these religiously motivated virus enablers. The Hillsborough County (Fla.) sheriff recently made national news when he arrested a preacher for flouting COVID-19 orders. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who has previously “laid hands” on President Trump, held in-person church services last Sunday despite “orders set in place by the president, the governor of Florida, the CDC and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group,” according to the sheriff.

This is the right call. We need to see more such arrests — and subsequent convictions. Religion is not a license to risk the lives of Americans, any more than it is a license to discriminate.

Howard-Browne hasn’t just risked lives with these church services, he’s also spreading ignorance and misinformation that further endangers everyone. As “Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta has documented, Howard-Browne has called the coronavirus scourge a “phantom plague,” claimed that his church is safe for worship because it has 13 machines that would “basically kill every virus in the place.” He even announced that people who have enough faith will see their rolls of toilet paper “multiply.” (This is a topical twist on the biblical legend of Jesus multiplying bread and fish, and turning water into wine, apparently.)

Howard-Browne is not alone in his open insubordination. Last week, in violation of Virginia’s public health directives, evangelical figure Jerry Falwell Jr. recklessly insisted that students and staff had to return to his Liberty University after spring break, with staff being required to report to work and more than 1,000 fearful students staying in dorms. Falwell claimed that medical professionals supported the decision, even naming one, a claim that had to be revised because it was untrue. Not surprisingly, some students have now tested positive for coronavirus, reports the New York Times. Falwell’s actions have forced the Virginia governor to order all higher-education institutions to halt any in-person instruction.

Another right-wing preacher, Jonathan Shuttlesworth, is promising “an Easter blowout service … a national gathering … like Woodstock.” This is from the man who, clad in Patagonia and sipping Acqua Panna, said churches that heed orders to close are “sissies” and “pansies,” with “no balls” who “got neutered somewhere along the line.”

And authorities have finally arrested Tony Spell, pastor of Louisiana’s Life Tabernacle Church, for violating physical-distancing directives. Police Chief Roger Corcoran apprehended Spell on six misdemeanor counts of violating the governor’s executive order. Corcoran had pleaded with the pastor for two weeks, bringing in state police, the fire marshal and even Christian Nationalist titan Tony Perkins, all to naught.

“Instead of showing the strength and resilience of our community during this difficult time, Mr. Spell has chosen to embarrass us for his own self-promotion,” said Corcoran in a welcome statement. He “will have his day in court where he will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community.”

The willful ignorance and reckless disregard these preachers and religious leaders are showing for their fellow citizens betray the dangers of blind faith and the above-the-law sense of entitlement by some religionists. All of these brazen men need to be held accountable by local and federal enforcement agencies.

FFRF has already explained to every governor that exempting churches from coronavirus orders is unconstitutional and immoral. Any existing exemptions must be overturned. But that’s not enough. These scofflaws are not just risking lives, they are taking lives. They are responsible for spreading the virus and increasing pressure on our already overworked medical system. If they feel no shame and no compassion, they should feel the sting of law enforcement.

It’s also possible that some private citizens might haul these violators into civil court with negligence lawsuits that could result in punitive damages, at least in theory. FFRF is working on resources that will encourage local citizens to contact local enforcement officials and demand that they take action against churches who are violating the stay-at-home orders — resources that soon will be available.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is doing its bit but, regardless, officials need to make certain that outlaw figures do not endanger our health in the name of religion.

Photo: Hernando County Detention Center.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

FFRF privacy statement