President Donald Trump on Friday ordered 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.
Despite the various public health concerns related to reopening places of worship, Trump insisted Friday that Americans nevertheless “are 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 president had previewed his announcement in recent days, telling reporters outside the White House on Thursday that churches “are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors,” and that his administration was “going to take a very strong position on that very soon.”
Later Thursday, during a roundtable meeting with African American leaders in Michigan, Trump called places of worship “so important in terms of the psyche of our country,” and characterized churches as “essential” — the terminology commonly used in reference to businesses or workers whose return to routine life should be prioritized amid the pandemic.
Trump repeated that description earlier Friday at a White House ceremony honoring U.S. veterans, POWs and MIAs, saying he “just spoke to CDC” about reopening places of worship. “We’re going to make that essential. You know, they have places essential that aren’t essential, and they open, and yet the churches aren’t allowed to open,” he said.
The president made a similar, short-lived push to reopen places of worship in late March, when he revealed he would “love to have” to national economy “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter, citing the symbolic significance of the Christian holiday.
“You’ll have packed churches all over our country,” he said then. “I think it would be a beautiful time, and it’s just about the timeline that I think is right.”