President Donald Trump called a news conference on short notice Friday to announce that churches and other places of worship would be considered essential services under federal guidelines, and governors should allow them to reopen and operate immediately.
After legal challenges in several states about statewide stay-at-home orders prohibiting or severely limiting the ability for churches to meet, Trump said any governor that resists his order to lift restrictions on worship gatherings will have to deal directly with him. His order includes synagogues, mosques, and any other house of worship.
“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now,” Trump said. “For this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less.”
The president pointed out some of the other services that have been deemed “essential” by governments.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential,” the president said. “But have left out houses of worship. That’s not right.
Pastors have been cited or arrested for defying coronavirus lockdown orders by holding in-person services with gatherings larger than the pandemic rules allow. The Department of Justice has been supportive of churches in some of these instances, viewing the limitations on religious gatherings as a violation of the First Amendment.
At the same time, some churches have had negative outcomes from gathering during the pandemic. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted an Arkansas church where 92 people attended church events in one weekend, leading to 35 COVID-19 infections and three deaths.
As a result, the CDC warns faith organizations to be aware of the risk of high transmission rates if they choose to begin gathering in-person. Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus response task force, suggested that churches in areas with high infection rates may want to wait before reopening, regardless of Trump’s order.