Trump deems places of worship 'essential,' claims he can order their reopening

The president did not say what legal authority he had to force churches to open if governors object.

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By Shannon Pettypiece, Kristen Welker and Carol E. Lee

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that places of worship are "essential" and should open this weekend, threatening to override governors who have ordered churches, synagogues and mosques not to reopen in the coming days.

"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It's not right," Trump said during impromptu remarks to reporters. "So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential. I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now.”

"The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend," he said. "If they don't do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less."

Trump did not say what legal authority he had to force governors, who maintain the power to order establishments to remain closed during public health emergencies in their own states, to make such a move if they disagreed.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to say how Trump could force governors to take such action when pressed repeatedly by reporters shortly after the president spoke.

"The president would like churches to reopen and do it in accordance with the guidelines," McEnany said, adding that Trump "will strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines Friday afternoon for reopening places of worship amid the coronavirus crisis that recommended the use of face coverings, basic hygiene and the avoidance of shared materials that can't easily be cleaned.

The guidelines also said places of worship should consider limiting the size of gatherings or moving them outdoors, suspending the use of choirs and singing, and eliminating activities where it is difficult to maintain six feet of separation.

The CDC said the guidelines are "non-binding public health guidance for consideration only; it is not meant to regulate or prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship. Any decision to modify specific religious rites, rituals, and services should be made by religious leaders."

The White House had delayed the guidelines over a disagreement with the CDC over what the recommendations should entail.

Those guidelines had been revised by White House officials in recent days to make them less stringent than the ones the agency initially recommended.

“Our big push has been, don’t be overly prescriptive,” said a White House official ahead of the release. “And keep in mind, these are recommendations.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, head of the White House's coronavirus task force, said faith leaders should coordinate with local health officials on plans for reopening, particularly in places that still have a persistent number of cases.

"I think that each one of the leaders in the faith community should be in touch with their local health departments so that they can communicate to their congregants," Birx said. "Certainly, people that have significant comorbidities, we want them protected. I know those houses of worship want to protect them. Ensuring that maybe they can't go this week if there’s a high number of COVID cases, maybe they wait another week."

Public health officials have documented multiple instances where the virus has potentially spread during religious services.

Two people infected with COVID-19 passed the virus to more than 30 people during church gatherings in Arkansas in early March, before the first case was ever diagnosed in that state, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published this month. Last month, Sacramento County health officials said one-third of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county were tied to church gatherings.

Despite the restrictions states have placed on gatherings such as in-person religious services, a number of faith leaders have defied those orders. A congregant who attended a California church earlier this month for a service that was against state orders tested positive for coronavirus the next day, possibly exposing 180 other churchgoers.