President Donald Trump demanded on Friday that governors allow churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship to hold in-person services immediately -- threatening to overrule them with unspecified authority if they don't comply.
"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," President Trump said in remarks to reporters Friday as his administration rolled out detailed guidance for religious institutions for how to safely reopen amid the virus.
It is unclear what legal authority the president could exercise to overrule a governor and the White House could not point to a specific provision that would give the president that power.
"The president will strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.
But while the president called for all governors to ensure that houses of worship can reopen by this weekend, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx emphasized the importance of community-level decision-making and said there should be extra precautions to protect congregants who may be at high-risk for the virus.
“I really firmly believe a knowledgeable community can really make judgments for themselves. I think each one of the leaders in the faith community should be in touch with their local health departments so that they can communicate to their congregants," she said. "Certainly people that have significant comorbidities, we want them protected. I know those houses of worship want to protect them. And so really ensuring that maybe items -- maybe they can't go this week if there's high number of COVID cases, maybe they wait another week."
The detailed guidelines released by the CDC include a long list of best practices for places of worship, including recommendations to encourage cloth face coverings, hold services in well-ventilated area or outdoors when possible, schedule services far enough apart to allow cleanings in between, continue to limit gathering sizes to comply with state guidance and directives, and consider limiting singing, because it may contribute to transmission of the virus through saliva droplets.
The president's focus on churches this week is part of a broader push to encourage reopening the country. He described churches in particular as “important in terms of the psyche of our country."
“I just got off the phone with CDC and talked about churches. I said I want the churches to open, the people want the churches to open, and I think you'll have something come down very soon, from CDC, we want to get our churches back,” Trump said on Thursday at a roundtable with African American community leaders on his trip to Michigan.
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The president’s determination to reopen places of worship comes as he has urged the people of the country to view themselves as “warriors” in prioritizing a return to a semblance of normal life even as the coronavirus remains a major threat to public health.
“People want to be in their churches,” the president told African American leaders and reporters Thursday. “It's wonderful to sit home and watch something on a laptop, but it can never be the same as being in a church or be with your friends and they want to have it open and I think that's going to be happening very shortly.”
Back in March, the president had envisioned packed church pews by Easter Sunday in a bid to reopen the country, but ultimately relented from the Easter goal.
"I would love to have it open by Easter," Trump said on March 24. "It's such an important day for other reasons, but I'll make it an important day for this, too. I would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go by Easter."
As he again pushes for churches to return to in-person fellowship, the federal government is in a position to offer guidance, but it will be state and local governments that continue to bear responsible for setting the terms of reopening based on the conditions in their communities.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump from casting the issue in political terms.
The president has criticized some Democratic states for taking approaches that he views as overly cautious and on Thursday blame “a lot of Democrat governors” for keeping churches shuttered.
“The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors. I want to get our churches open,” he said. “And we’re gonna take a very strong position on that very soon.”
Attorney General William Barr has threatened the Justice Department will intervene in lawsuits brought by churches opposing restrictions if it thinks constitutional rights are being violated.
Public health officials continue to urge caution as states begin to relax social distancing guidelines that reopening too quickly could lead to another spike in virus. While there has been a recent downward decline of new cases on the national level, some states and cities have reported increases.