WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Friday labeled churches and other houses of worship as “essential” and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen this weekend even though some areas remain under coronavirus lockdown.
The president threatened to “override” governors who defy him, but it was unclear what authority he has to do so.
“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now – for this weekend,” Trump said at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wouldn't answer a theoretical question.
Following Trump's announcement, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.
In-person religious services have been vectors for transmission of the virus. A person who attended a Mother's Day service at a church in Northern California that defied the governor's closure orders later tested positive, exposing more than 180 churchgoers. And a choir practice at a church in Washington state was labeled by the CDC as an early “superspreading” event.
But Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and said he was “identifying houses of worship – churches, synagogues and mosques – as essential places that provide essential services.”
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, he said. “It's not right. So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said faith leaders should be in touch with local health departments and can take steps to mitigate risks, including making sure those who are at high risk of severe complications remain protected.
Churches around the country have filed legal challenges opposing virus closures. Some hailed the president's move, including Kelly Shackelford, president of the conservative First Liberty Institute.
“The discrimination that has been occurring against churches and houses of worship has been shocking,” he said in a statement. “Americans are going to malls and restaurants. They need to be able to go to their houses of worship.”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said he would review the guidance, while maintaining that a decision rests with him.