President Trump on Friday said that he was calling houses of faith, including churches, synagogues, and mosques, “essential services” and urged governors to reopen them “right now.”
“Today I am identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogue and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said at a hastily scheduled briefing at the White House on Friday. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right.”
It was not immediately clear what authority the president was claiming. “I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now,” he said. “If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me but they’re not going to be successful in that call.”
Religious services have emerged as flashpoints since states first began restricting large gatherings as they sought to curb the spread of the virus. Trump initially hoped to let the country reopen by Easter, a goal that proved untenable as the outbreak continued to grow.
In several cases his Justice Department put its weight behind religious institutions battling state and local restrictions. After the department lent its support last month to a Mississippi church that was penalized for holding drive-in services in defiance of local virus restrictions, Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement: “Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”
And Justice Department lawyers wrote a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom of California this week objecting to his timeline for letting religious institutions reopen.
Trump said that the nation needs religion. “In America we need more prayer not less,” he said.
His move came as health officials have found that worship gatherings could be particularly susceptible to viral spread. And some churches that recently reopened were forced to close again after discovering new infections, including Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Ringgold, Ga., and Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report this week about an outbreak in March at a rural Arkansas church. Of the 92 people who attended the church between March 6 and March 11, the report said, 35 tested positive and three died. And investigators found that another 26 other people who were in contact with the people who attended church events later tested positive, and one died.
In hard-hit New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo moved this week to allow religious gatherings of up to 10 people to resume as long as attendees wear masks and maintain social distance.
“I understand their desire to get back to religious ceremonies as soon as possible,” Cuomo said of faith leaders.
The announcement was particularly significant for Jewish congregations, where a minyan, defined as 10 people over 13, is required for a worship service.