Trump deems houses of worship ‘essential’ amid pandemic, but has no power to force reopening

(CNN) — President Donald Trump announced Friday that his administration is issuing guidance deeming places of worship “essential” during the coronavirus pandemic, calling on governors to reopen religious institutions for services.

Trump threatened to “override” governors if their states did not follow the new federal recommendations, but he does not have the authority to do so. The recommendations are voluntary.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics essential, but have left our churches and houses of worship. It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,” Trump said during his announcement at the White House.

The President said that at his direction, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will provide the guidance.

Trump said he was calling upon governors to “allow churches and places of worship to open right now.”

“If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me, but they’re not going to be successful in that call,” Trump added.

“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” he continued.

Later in the briefing, White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, underscored that reopening was at the discretion of governors and religious leaders.

“I think each one of the leaders in the faith community should be in touch with their local health department so they can communicate to their congregants. Certainly people that have significant comorbidities, we want them protected. I know those houses of worship want to protect them,” Birx said. “Maybe they can’t go this week if there’s high numbers of Covid cases. Maybe they wait another week. But there is a way to social distance … in places of worship.”

McEnany, asked about Birx’s response, said the decision to reopen based on the new federal guidance is “up to the governors.”

McEnany would not explain what authority Trump would use to “override” governors’ decisions to keep places of worship closed.

A senior administration official told CNN that the guidance had been initially delayed because some officials believed the proposals were too detailed and would be impossible for churches and others to achieve. There was also talk of putting out no guidance at all on religious services, but Trump had conversations with CDC officials and urged them to issue something.

The White House coronavirus task force finalized the guidance during a meeting on Thursday, the source said.

The President referred to the conversations with CDC officials on Thursday, telling participants and the press at a listening session with African Americans, “I said, ‘You better put it out.’ ”

“I spoke to CDC today about churches. We’ve got to get our churches open. We’ve got to get our country open,” he said.

As Trump has pressured localities and states to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, he’s put particular weight on the reopening of places of worship.

He said in April that it would be “beautiful” for churches to be open and “packed” on Easter Sunday. He later said the date was aspirational.

Ahead of Easter Sunday, he advised faith leaders to wait for the country to “get healed” from the coronavirus pandemic before holding services in person.

But more recently, the President has lamented that digital religious services aren’t the same as in-person ones.

“People want to be in their churches. It’s wonderful to sit home and watch something on a laptop, but it can never be the same as being in a church and being with your friends. And they want to have it open, and I think that’s going to be happening… very shortly,” Trump said during Thursday’s listening session.

Large gatherings, like those in houses of worship, have been linked to clusters of coronavirus. This month, two churches in northern California linked the spread of coronavirus among church members and clergy to Mother’s Day services. A Texas church recently canceled its masses after one of its priests died and five others subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus.

This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.

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