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The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida held a crowded service Sunday for its thousands of members, despite a ban of groups of 10 or more people and the church's online streaming capability, FOX 13 reports.
"They are trying to beat me up, you know, over having the church operational but we are not non-essential," Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne, the Tampa church's founding pastor, said during Sunday's service.
Last week, Howard-Browne said they "brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place" on YouTube as the sheriff's office and attorneys for the church are in contact about how to best keep the public safe.
"We feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community," the church said in a statement posted to their website.
Reverend Tony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, La., defied a shelter-in-place order by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, as hundreds gathered Sunday.
In a phone interview with Fox News, he says his church had been the target of hostility long before the gathering ban because it serves the poor and needy with its multi-racial congregation in a community that is 88 percent white.
He also says his church offers the only hope for many who suffer. “I have seen members healed of HIV and cancer -- diseases [that are] bigger than COVID-19.”
But many are upset. Paul Quinn, a resident of Central who lives near the church, asks why the congregation can't just go online to keep others safe: "What makes them so special?"
"It's a serious health hazard," he said. "They don't know how many people they're affecting, and they don't seem to care. That's a problem."
Spell points to Walmart, where hundreds of cars are in the parking lot and "nobody blinks an eye."
Walmart is open in Baton Rouge near Spell’s church because it has a grocery store inside, enabling it to meet the criteria for being classified essential, but Spell and Howard-Browne say feeding our souls and our spirits are also essential.
And while there are no confirmed cases within their church, other houses of worship have not been as fortunate.
A Catholic priest in Brooklyn died Friday and churches in Flint, Mich. are mourning the death of a bishop, pastor, and church elder. Congregants in California, Georgia, and Arkansas have all died after it is believed they contracted the virus at church.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to shut down any houses of worship that defy the state's stay-at-home mandate.
Fox News Channel's Lauren Green and the Associated Press contributed to this report.