Trump demands states reopen houses of worship 'right now'

President Trump said Friday that he wanted state governors to allow the nation’s houses of worship to reopen “right now” despite the ongoing health risks from the coronavirus pandemic posed by large gatherings of people.

“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogue and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump told reporters gathered in the White House press briefing room. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. That’s not right.”

Trump’s announcement came one day after he instructed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release guidelines for reopening houses of worship that have been shuttered to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. While the CDC issued a lengthy update to its website on Thursday detailing safety protocols, the president was much more succinct.

“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very essential places of faith to open right now,” Trump said. “I call 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.”

In the past week, Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Ringgold, Ga., and Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston suspended services after parishioners and church leaders tested positive for COVID-19 following their reopening.

Reports of coronavirus hot spots traced back to houses of worship have been widespread since the virus took root in the U.S. At least 33 African-American church leaders have been killed by COVID-19.

Trump made no mention of that data on Friday, saying “the people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque.” He added that religious leaders would “make sure that their congregations are safe as they gather and pray.”

President Trump at the White House on Friday. (Reuters/Leah Millis)

On Tuesday, the Justice Department warned Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom that the state’s reopening plan discriminates against churches because it restricts in-person services to prevent further spread of the virus.

Without citing what legal authority he had to compel states to reopen houses of worship, Trump issued his own warning to the states: “If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less.”

Trump left the briefing room without taking questions. Reporters pressed his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, to specify what authority he would use to compel states to reopen houses of worship. She refused to answer, calling the question “hypothetical.”

“Boy, it’s interesting to be in a room that desperately seems to want to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed,” she went on, drawing an outraged response from Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason: “Kayleigh, I object to that. I go to church, I’m dying to go back to church. The question we’re asking, and would like to have asked the president ... is is it safe, and if it’s not safe, is the president trying to encourage that?”

“It is safe to reopen your churches if you do so in accordance with the guidelines,” McEnany responded, reading off from a list of recommendations about social distancing, face coverings and “intensified cleaning.”

“I am thankful that we have a president that celebrates the First Amendment,” she said, “the same First Amendment that gives you all the ability to ask me questions.”

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