WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday declared churches to be “essential places,” touting new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations that he says allow them to reopen despite coronavirus social distancing rules.
“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said.
Governors have issued to various regulations slow the spread of the virus in places of worship where the faithful often gather in close quarters. The CDC determined this week that 92 attendees of a rural Arkansas church contracted COVID-19 during March 6-11 and three died, while another 26 COVID-19 cases, including one death.
While many churches, synagogues and mosques canceled services to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, others have tried to devise social distancing rules to accommodate worship.
Trump faulted governors who have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but not houses of worship. And he warned governors that if they don’t allow the religious services, “I’ll override the governors. Americans need more prayers, not less.”
The White House did not elaborate on what authority Trump could override governors — a statement that contradicts Trump’s usual insistence that governors, not a president, have the authority to mandate social distancing rules in their states.
Legal scholar Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who voted against Trump in 2016 but nonetheless testified against the House impeachment effort, tweeted that Trump lacks a mandate to force governors to open churches. Turley added that the administration can “join in challenges to over-broad orders under the federal constitution. That is precisely what Attorney General (William) Barr is doing.”
In early May, the Department of Justice filed a statement in support of the Lighthouse Fellowship Church (Lighthouse), in Virginia after local police cited the church’s pastor for holding a Palm Sunday service for 16 worshippers in a sanctuary with seating for 225.
Under an executive order signed by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, in-person religious services of more than 10 people are banned and subject to criminal charges, as well as penalties of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
“Because the executive orders prohibit Lighthouse’s 16-person, socially distanced gathering in a 225-seat church but allow similar secular conduct, such as a gathering of 16 lawyers in a large law firm conference room, the governor’s executive orders may constitute a violation of the church’s constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion,” noted a Department of Justice press release.
The new guidelines were offered as “non-binding public health guidance for consideration only” and suggest “steps to limit the size of gatherings in accordance with the guidance and directives of state and local authorities.
“We can all hope that this Sunday, people are allowed to pray to their God,” Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters after Trump left an unscheduled Friday briefing.
Other faith leaders disagreed strongly with Trump’s message.
Interfaith Alliance President Rabbi Jack Moline said,“The president is wrong, plain and simple. Ordering houses of worship to be opened without robust guidelines around necessary safety precautions flies in the face of medical and scientific advice — including advice originally administered by the CDC that the Trump White House suppressed for the sake of its cronies on the Religious Right.”
In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak has prohibited large indoor in-person religious services. The Review Journal asked Sisolak’s office for comment, but did not immediately hear back,.
In a statement, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., responded, “President Trump does not have any authority to ‘override’ governors. The Constitution has a 10th Amendment and I suggest that he read it. We all want to return to our places of worship, but we must do so safely based on science, not politics. In the meantime, I’ll be praying at home for those affected by this pandemic and the salvation of our democracy.”