Trump deems churches ‘essential,’ calls for them to reopen

President Donald Trump said Friday that he has deemed churches and other houses of worship "essential" and called on governors across the country to allow them to reopen this weekend despite the threat of spreading the coronavirus.

"Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services," Trump said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House, where he didn’t take questions. He said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will "override" them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had prepared a draft of reopening guidelines for churches and other houses of worship weeks ago that included measures like maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.

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But that guidance had been delayed for more than a month by the administration until Trump abruptly changed course Thursday.

"I said, ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it," Trump said Thursday at a Ford Motor Co. plant repurposed to make ventilators in Michigan. "And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We’ve got to get our churches open."

Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and took issue with some of the businesses that had been allowed to reopen.

"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential" but not churches, he said. "It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential."

"These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque," he said.

Meanwhile, the CDC said decisions and strategies on reopening will be implemented at the state, tribal and local levels. It added that implementation should be guided by what’s practical and consistent with religious beliefs of each community.

David Schultz, an expert on state constitutional law, and professor at Hamline University called it a matter of "federalism,” meaning the president likely doesn’t have authority to overstep states, at least not without Congress.

“I really view this as a political statement than to do something that has the basis in constitutional law or authority,” said Schultz. "It’s mostly an empty threat. But it’s also a political move on his part because we know that his core base are evangelical Christians, and by him taking a stand and saying churches should reopen again, that’s a position that’s going to be very popular with his core voters. So even if he loses, he sort of wins, because he gets to say, ‘Listen, I wanted you to go back to church, I was backordering the governors, and I couldn’t do it.’”

Whether places of worship can reopen could still become a First Amendment legal issue. In that case, Schultz said it could be challenged in local courts, and could possibly be pushed up to the Supreme Court.

A spokesperson for Gov. Tim Walz’s office released the following statement Friday:

“Governor Walz has had many productive conversations with faith leaders in Minnesota over the last few weeks. The Governor’s top priority continues to be the health and safety of Minnesotans, and he looks forward to reviewing the new CDC guidance to better understand what this means for places of worship in Minnesota.”