Trump Calls for Reopening of Houses of Worship

Trump Says Places of Worship Are Essential Services; President calls on governors to let churches reopen, threatens to ‘override’ any who don’t

By Gordon Lubold and Catherine Lucey, WSJ, May 22, 2020

WASHINGTON—President Trump called on governors to reopen the nation’s places of worship as essential services Friday, pointing to new safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and declaring that he would “override” any state leaders who don’t agree.

The president said some governors have deemed abortion clinics and liquor stores as essential but hadn’t put churches and other places of worship in that category. Mr. Trump, who since the coronavirus crisis began has asserted that he has authority over state governors only to walk back his position, didn’t say how he would overrule the states, which have set their own rules in the crisis.

“I call upon the governors to allow our churches or places of worship to open,” Mr. Trump said at a hastily scheduled appearance in the White House briefing room Friday. “If they don’t do it, I will override the governors.”

“The ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders will make sure their congregations are safe as they gather and pray,” he said.

The president’s announcement came as he is pushing for the country to reopen. It reflected his close ties to evangelical Christians, a group that has voiced frustration about the lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, and one that Mr. Trump sees as key to his re-election bid in November.

Most U.S. churches have closed their doors for now and moved to virtual services amid concerns over the virus, but others have sought to continue to bring congregants together physically in some way, prompting some litigation and tensions with local authorities.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said governors would decide to allow places of worship to open based on the guidance set forth by the CDC, which posted new guidance Friday. “That’s up to the governors,” she said.

Ms. McEnany didn’t respond to questions about what authority the president would use to force governors to open churches.

“You’re posing a hypothetical,” Ms. McEnany said to a reporter. “We will leave it to these faith communities to reopen,” adding: “The president’s been very clear, he wants churches to reopen, he wants them to do it safely, he wants them to do it in accordance with our guidance. It’s laid out, very detailed.”

Mr. Trump on Thursday said Democratic governors weren’t treating churches with respect.

The CDC guidelines issued Friday lay out a series of recommendations for houses of worship around social distancing, cleaning practices and using face covers. They also suggest limiting shared items like hymnals or communion cups and stress the need for a plan should someone become ill.

“Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, and acceptable, and tailored to the needs and traditions of each community of faith,” the guidelines state. “Millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life,” the CDC said.

Mr. Trump has wavered on how much power he has over the states on reopening their economy. He said in April that he had “total authority” over states’ plans to reopen and then, after a backlash, said the states could decide on their own. The president has no power under existing law to countermand lawful orders from state governments, legal experts say.

The U.S. Constitution reserves considerable powers to the states, and gives individuals and businesses significant protections against coercive government actions. Several courts have allowed restrictions on in-person church services during the pandemic to safeguard public health, but the rulings haven’t been uniform.

The Justice Department has sought to support people and groups who say their religious rights have been violated, writing in a legal brief in April that the department had interest in preserving the “fundamental right to the free exercise of religion, expressly protected by the First Amendment.”

Justice Department officials warned California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday about his plan for gradually easing the state’s coronavirus lockdown. California’s order that outlined plans for a staggered reopening treats churches and religious services less favorably than secular activities, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the state’s four U.S. attorneys told Mr. Newsom in a letter urging him to adjust the restrictions.

“Whichever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature,” they wrote in the letter.

California’s reopening plan, for example, lets restaurants, factories, malls and other offices operate with social-distancing earlier than in-person religious services.

The CDC released a report this week about the spread of the coronavirus among attendees at an Arkansas church in March. Over a five-day period, the church held a number of gatherings where social distancing wasn’t practiced; of the 92 participants in the events, 35 developed Covid-19 and three died. Another 26 cases linked to the church happened in the community.

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House chief coordinator on the Covid-19 response, said Friday at the White House that there were ways to socially distance to stay safe, adding that a “knowledgeable community” should make decisions for themselves.

“There is a way to social distance in places of worship, and what we’re trying to say with the CDC guidance is that there is a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people so we decrease the amount of exposure people have,” she said. “I know that if Americans didn’t feel well, they wouldn’t go to church that day.”

This article first appeared HERE.