WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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.
The Marion County Department of Health sent the following response to Trump’s announcement.
At all times during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Marion County Public Health Department (MCHPD) has worked to balance the critical mission of slowing the transmission of the coronavirus and Marion County residents’ interests in living their daily lives. As the public health officer for Marion County, I have an acute responsibility to protect the lives of our residents and the health of our community while only restricting activities that are necessary for that protection.
Indiana state law expressly permits MCPHD to order churches and schools closed and forbid public gatherings when considered necessary to prevent and stop epidemics. The most recent order, Public Health Order 10-2020, issued on May 15, allowed churches and religious institutions to reopen for services if they abide by the rules applicable for other public gatherings. The order in no way discriminates against religious exercise. Instead, it represents an increase from previous orders by the State of Indiana and Marion County in the number of people that may assemble for public gatherings, including for religious services.
Evidence clearly shows that gathering people together for in-person interaction poses a greater communicable disease threat than retail stores where people enter to make a purchase and then leave.
MCPHD remains committed to engaging and collaborating with all levels of government to ensure the enforcement of public health orders and explain the ways religious exercise is available under them. This includes closely monitoring and implementing the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, including the Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith that was issued on May 22, 2020.Dr. Virginia A. Caine, Chief Medical Officer & Director for the Marion County Public Health Department