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Easter And COVID-19: Can Florida's Pastors And Governments Strike A Balance?

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Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne at The River Church at Tampa Bay.

A big question going into this Easter weekend is whether some pastors in Florida will decide to hold services despite the risks of COVID-19 infection. One conservative Christian leader is trying to help congregations – and state and local officials – make the right call.

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The Hillsborough County Sheriff arrested evangelical pastor Rodney Howard-Browne last month for violating an order not to hold church services due to COVID-19. But the case is uncertain now that Gov. Ron DeSantis has exempted religious sites from Florida’s lockdown order.

Mathew Staver of the Liberty Council, which is representing Howard-Browne, told NBC News this week the pastor has not yet decided if he’ll hold Easter services at his River Church in Tampa Bay this Sunday.

Meanwhile, Christian church advocates like Sam Rohrer, president of the American Pastors Network in Philadelphia, urge both sides to be cautious. Rohrer says on the one hand religious leaders must appreciate their societal responsibility:

“It may be that there’s a forest fire coming," Rohrer says. "The authorities say you should not be together at your church because you’ve got a fire coming. Now is that in the interest of the people not to meet at that point? The answer’s yes.”

On the other hand, Rohrer says government leaders must appreciate what he believes is the "essential" societal role of churches during crises like COVID-19 — and their constitutional religious liberty rights.

“It is in the interest of people who are in office to stop short of flat-out abridging a right," Rohrer says. "And it’s in the interest of all pastors not to flat-out oppose, but to try and work it out with those who are in authority. There’s a balance that needs to be entered into.”

The Liberty Council says Howard-Browne is expected to make a decision on Easter services by the end of this week.