The president’s order could set off a constitutional clash over one of the core tenets of the First Amendment.
President Donald Trump on Friday commanded America’s governors to immediately reopen churches and other places of worship shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, threatening to “override” the state leaders if they refused to follow his directive.
Speaking at a previously unannounced news briefing at the White House, the president revealed that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were “issuing guidance for communities of faith,” and declared “houses of worship, churches, synagogues and mosques” to be “essential places that provide essential services.”
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” Trump told reporters. “It’s not right. So, I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”
Trump emphasized he was calling upon governors to allow places of worship to resume operations “right now,” and warned that “if there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me — but they are not going to be successful in that call.”
It is unclear whether the president is legally empowered to compel the nation’s governors to take such an action. If the White House moves to enforce his order in defiance of opposition by local officials, Trump could force a constitutional clash over one of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.
Challenged on Trump’s authority to unilaterally reopen places of worship, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at the briefing Friday the administration would “leave it to faith communities to reopen,” and pointed to “detailed guidance” from the federal government “about the way you can clean your facility [and] promote social distancing.”
But soon after his remarks at the White House, the president was confronted with resistance from state and local executives. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said she would not alter her state’s plans to reopen places of worship on May 30, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her city would also be ignoring the White House’s edict.
Public health experts have expressed concern about the risks related to reopening places of worship, since the coronavirus appears to spread easily through singing in enclosed places.
Still, Trump insisted Friday that Americans are nevertheless “demanding to go to church, and synagogue or to their mosque,” and he predicted “the ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe” when they gather.
“They don’t want anything bad to happen to them or to anybody else,” Trump said. “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less.”
The CDC last week released brief, one-page checklists meant to help reopen schools, restaurants and other institutions before the agency unveiled the longer guidance this week. Those documents did not include recommendations for places of worship, but Trump said Thursday he had directed the CDC to issue those guidelines.
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