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Trump calls for Memorial Day church reopenings but sends mixed signals on enforcement

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3 days ago John Fritze, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Friday called on local officials to reopen churches and other places of worship beginning this weekend, but aides offered conflicting messages about how far the administration will go to ensure parishioners are allowed back in the pews.

Trump described churches, synagogues and mosques as "essential" institutions and said that if governors decline to reopen them this weekend he would "override" them. But legal experts say Trump has limited authority to force changes to state coronavirus orders and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany acknowledged minutes after Trump spoke that it is, "up to the governors."  

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The White House messaging was further muddied when Dr. Deborah Birx, the administration's coronavirus response coordinator, said that people with secondary health issues "maybe ... can't go this week" to church if they live in areas with a high number of cases. On the other hand, Birx said there is "a way to social distance" in places of worship.

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The back and forth underscored the tension between Trump's desire to quickly reopen businesses and other institutions and return to a sense of "normalcy" despite stubborn coronavirus caseloads in some parts of the country and fears of resurgence. 

"In America, we need more prayer, not less," Trump said during brief remarks.   

Few lockdown restrictions have stirred as much controversy as those applied to churches, repeatedly thrusting social distancing efforts into preexisting cultural and political conflicts. Trump’s Justice Department has sided with churches over state shutdown orders in several cases, arguing the orders violate constitutional rights.

Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, has been vocal in the past about attending church services remotely. Ahead of Easter weekend, for instance, Pence said he would attend the virtual services of his Indiana church from "right in the living room at the vice president's (residence), where we have been attending for the last several weeks." 

a woman sitting on a chair: Monica Asitimbay prays at Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack, New Jersey, on Sunday, May 17, 2020, the first the day the church reopened during the coronavirus pandemic. © Amy Newman, USA TODAY Network Monica Asitimbay prays at Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack, New Jersey, on Sunday, May 17, 2020, the first the day the church reopened during the coronavirus pandemic.

For several days, Trump has slammed Democratic governors for what he describes as moving too slowly to bring parishioners back to their pews, though his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had urged churches to modify their services.

Trump on Friday argued that "some" governors have erred by allowing liquor stores and abortion clinics to remain open but not churches. If governors disagreed that churches are essential, Trump said, "they’re going to have to call me."

But in fact, it is state and local officials who decide which businesses are essential and who have signed enforceable stay-at-home orders. Trump has previously claimed he has the "absolute right" to change those orders, but has backed down from doing so.

"No statute and no constitutional provision gives the president of the United States the unilateral authority (without statutory authorization) to override local and state shelter-in-place orders either in general or as applied to houses of worship in particular," tweeted Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.

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More: Trump accuses Democratic governors of keeping lockdowns because of 'politics'

The CDC in recent days has issued detailed guidelines for reopening pools, schools and restaurants, but similar guidance on reopening churches, synagogues and mosques was put on hold.

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The Trump administration initially shelved the documents, according to the Associated Press. Last week, a Trump administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that there were concerns about the propriety of the federal government making specific dictates to places of worship.

"Ordering houses of worship to be opened without robust guidelines around necessary safety precautions flies in the face of medical and scientific advice, including advice originally administered by the CDC," said Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, which advocates for the separation of church and state.

The CDC released a report this week highlighting the spread of the coronavirus at a rural church in Arkansas in March. Among 92 attendees, 35 developed confirmed cases of the virus and three died, according to the agency. Another 26 cases linked to the church took place in the surrounding community, the agency said, leading to one death.

Others applauded the move. 

"The discrimination that has been occurring against churches and houses of worship has been shocking," said Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty-focused law organization. "Americans are going to malls and restaurants.They need to be able to go to their houses of worship."

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: President Donald Trump holds a mask as he speaks during a tour of the Ford Rawsonville Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan on May 21, 2020. © BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AFP via Getty Images President Donald Trump holds a mask as he speaks during a tour of the Ford Rawsonville Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan on May 21, 2020.

Trump's Justice Department sided with a Virginia church this month in its challenge to a state shutdown order limiting the size of religious gatherings. Federal authorities filed notice of their support for the Lighthouse Fellowship Church in the resort town of Chincoteague Island after the pastor was cited last month by local police for hosting a service attended by 16 people – six more than allowed for such in-person gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The intervention follows a warning issued recently by Attorney General William Barr that the Justice Department was reviewing shutdown orders issued by the states to guard against overly restrictive policies.

Earlier this week, the department warned California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, that the state’s plan for a staggered re-opening discriminates against religious groups and a return to in-person worship services.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, chief of the department's Civil Rights Division, said churches were being forced to take a back seat to a gradual resumption of operations at schools, restaurants, offices and shopping malls.

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Contributing: Kevin Johnson, The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump calls for Memorial Day church reopenings but sends mixed signals on enforcement

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