WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Friday that he has deemed churches and other houses of worship “essential” and called on governors across the country to allow them to reopen this weekend despite the threat of spreading the coronavirus.
“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House, where he didn’t take questions. He said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had prepared a draft of reopening guidelines for churches and other houses of worship weeks ago that included measures like maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.
But that guidance had been delayed for more than a month by the administration until Trump abruptly changed course Thursday.
“I said, ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said Thursday at a Ford Motor Co. plant repurposed to make ventilators in Michigan. “And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We’ve got to get our churches open.”
Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and took issue with some of the businesses that had been allowed to reopen.
“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.”
Earlier this week the Oregon Supreme Court halted a rural judge’s order earlier in the day that had tossed out statewide coronavirus restrictions imposed by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff had ruled that Brown erred by not seeking the Legislature’s approval to extend the stay-at-home orders beyond a 28-day limit. The Supreme Court’s ruling stays Shirtcliff’s decision pending review by all the high court justices. In a statement, Brown praised the Supreme Court action.
The lower court judge had issued his opinion in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by 10 churches around Oregon that argued the state’s social distancing directives were unconstitutional.
The president suggested on Thursday that friction over the issue was more common in states run by Democrats because “churches are not being treated with respect” by many their governors.
One of those Democrats, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, was warned this week by Trump’s Justice Department that the state’s phased-in plan to restart economic activity puts an “unfair burden” on worship by not permitting churches to open earlier in the process. More than 1,200 California pastors are planning to restart worship on May 31 despite Newsom’s stay-at-home orders, which he has said would likely allow for religious gatherings within weeks.
Among the California pastors leading the call for resuming in-person gathering is Danny Carroll of Water of Life Community Church in Fontana. State officials “don’t understand that people of faith need contact, that they need to worship together,” Carroll said in an interview. “We’re trying to close the gap – thoughtfully, humbly, nicely.”
Carroll described the California church leaders’ effort as disconnected from politics: “We don’t deal with how people vote. We deal with how people live.”
But another pastor involved, Ron Hill of Love and Unity Christian Fellowship, said that he finds “some merit” in Republicans’ claims that blue states have a less keen understanding of religion’s importance in public life.
“I really find it difficult to understand why they’re placing a different rule on the church than on the supermarket, café or restaurant,” said Hill, who added that he had not yet definitively decided whether May 31 would mark the reopening of his church in Compton, Calif.
Pastors in other states, however, have already begun outlining plans to welcome back worshippers in person before the month’s end. Florida’s Rodney Howard-Browne – arrested in March for holding a large in-person service at his church, charges that were later dropped – is preparing to reopen with an outdoor service on Pentecost. Catholic and Lutheran churches in Minnesota have notified that state’s Democratic governor that they plan to resume Mass this week in advance of the holiday, in defiance of his order.
An evangelical pastor who’s been a key Trump backer, Jack Graham, plans to reopen his Texas megachurch on Pentecost weekend. Attendees of those services will be required to make reservations, but masks will not be mandated, according to the church’s website.
Graham told the Faithwire website this week that Pentecost, considered holy by Christians as the birthday of the church, was a fitting moment for “a kind of rebirth of the church” this year.
The momentum toward restarting in-person worship comes amid new reports of church gatherings spreading COVID-19. A CDC report released this week traced the spread of the virus to 35 out of 92 attendees at two March church events in Arkansas that were attended by two symptomatic people.
“Reopening faith communities, let alone reopening any other faith institutions, is unsafe” given the ongoing threat of spreading illness, said Maggie Siddiqi, director of the faith initiative at the liberal Center for American Progress. “My fear is we will learn the hard way and have to close again.”
While Pentecost promises to escalate the number of churches seeking to reopen, many other houses of worship are still expecting to wait until June or beyond to resume in-person services with restrictions aimed at protecting public health. Another prominent conservative evangelical ally of Trump, Pastor Robert Jeffress, said he is eyeing local metrics and could reopen sometime next month.
Jeffress said his Dallas-area megachurch would be “data-driven, instead of date-driven, when it comes to reopening.”
A spokeswoman for the ministry of Paula White-Cain, the pastor who leads Trump’s White House faith initiative, said this week that Pentecost services at her Florida church are slated to be online-only.
Trump, however, continued to project eagerness to restart religious services. The president and other senior administration officials held a Thursday conference call with 1,600 “pastors and faith leaders” to tout the importance of reopening in-person worship, according to the White House.