Trump declares houses of worship ‘essential,’ pressuring governors to let them reopen

Trump declares houses of worship ‘essential,’ pressuring governors to let them reopen


President Donald Trump on Friday commanded America’s governors to immediately reopen churches and other places of worship shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, threatening to “override” the state leaders if they refused to follow his directive.

Speaking at a previously unannounced news briefing at the White House, the president revealed that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were “issuing guidance for communities of faith,” and declared “houses of worship, churches, synagogues and mosques” to be “essential places that provide essential services.”

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” Trump told reporters. “It’s not right, so I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

Trump emphasized he was instructing governors to allow places of worship to resume operations “right now,” and warned that “if there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me — but they are not going to be successful in that call.”

It is unclear whether the president is legally empowered to compel the nation’s governors to take such an action. If the White House moves to enforce his order in defiance of opposition by local officials, Trump could force a constitutional clash over one of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

Challenged on Trump’s authority to unilaterally reopen places of worship, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at the briefing Friday the administration would “leave it to faith communities to reopen,” and pointed to “detailed guidance” from the federal government “about the way you can clean your facility [and] promote social distancing.”

But soon after his remarks at the White House, the president was confronted with resistance from state and local executives. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said she would not alter her state’s plans to reopen places of worship on May 30, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also announced her city would ignore Trump’s demand.

“By no means can the president order any locality, any state to do something that he doesn’t have the power to do,” Lightfoot said. “And he can’t do that here.”

The CDC’s guidelines, released after weeks of internal debate and scrutiny over leaked drafts, offered detailed measures for how places of worship can start to safely reopen, while advising them to consult with state and local authorities. In contrast with the earlier leaked guidelines, the agency didn’t recommend a phased reopening and instead laid out recommendations for how faith-based communities can promote safety, hygiene and social distancing.

For instance, the agency suggested groups consider suspending or decreasing how often choirs are used, as well as congregant singing and chanting during a service “if appropriate within the faith tradition.” It also recommended temporary limits on sharing religious objects, like books or cups, and to instead photocopy or email prayers to attendees.

Public health experts have expressed concern about the risks related to reopening places of worship. At least two churches in Georgia and Texas that had recently reopened shut down again this week after members tested positive for the virus, and a report from the CDC earlier this week documented how an early March outbreak in a rural Arkansas church spread from a pastor and his wife to about three dozen parishioners, killing three.

Still, Trump insisted Friday that Americans are nevertheless “demanding to go to church and synagogue or to their mosque,” and he predicted “the ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe” when they gather.

“They don’t want anything bad to happen to them or to anybody else,” Trump said. “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less.”

Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, stressed the importance of practicing mitigation measures as places of worship reopen, and said community faith leaders should be in touch with their local health departments.

“I think what we are trying to say with the CDC guidance is there is a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people, so that we decrease the amount of exposure that anyone would have to asymptomatic [people],” she said. “And I see it that way because I know all of you and all of Americans, if they didn’t feel well, they wouldn’t go to church that day.”

The release of the new guidance for places of worship brings to an end a weeks-long internal drama over the CDC’s detailed plans for reopening the country. After draft recommendations were leaked to the Associated Press earlier this month, White House officials said the guidance was delayed over concerns it was “too prescriptive.”

The CDC last week released brief, one-page checklists meant to help reopen schools, restaurants and other institutions before the agency unveiled the longer guidance this week. Those documents did not include recommendations for faith communities.

In recent days, the president had previewed his announcement regarding places of worship, telling reporters Thursday outside the White House that churches “are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors,” and that his administration was “going to take a very strong position on that very soon.”

Later Thursday, during a roundtable meeting with African American leaders in Michigan, Trump called places of worship “so important in terms of the psyche of our country,” and characterized churches as “essential” — the terminology commonly used in reference to businesses or workers whose return to routine life should be prioritized amid the pandemic.

Trump repeated that description earlier Friday at a White House ceremony honoring U.S. veterans, POWs and MIAs, saying he “just spoke to CDC” about reopening places of worship. “We’re going to make that essential. You know, they have places essential that aren’t essential, and they open, and yet the churches aren’t allowed to open,” he said.

The president made a similar, short-lived push to reopen places of worship in late March, when he revealed he would “love to have” the national economy “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter, citing the symbolic significance of the Christian holiday.

“You’ll have packed churches all over our country,” he said then. “I think it would be a beautiful time, and it’s just about the timeline that I think is right.”

Shia Kapos contributed to this report.

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