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President Donald Trump on Friday staged a dramatic unscheduled news conference to proclaim that he would require governors to reopen churches and other houses of worship and exempt them from coronavirus lockdowns.
Trump issued a brief statement – and avoided questions – in the White House briefing room, as more and mores states are reopening just before Memorial Day weekend, with some states like Maryland and Virginia yet to see downward slopes of infection that health experts want.
'Today I'm identifying houses of worship - churches, synagogue[s] and mosques - as essential places that provide essential services,' Trump said in the White House briefing room.
President Donald Trump said he is requiring governors to exempt churches and houses of worship from coronavirus lockdowns
To hammer home the point two days before Sunday, Trump mocked governors who have deemed establishments like liquor stores 'essential' stores that could remain open despite closures that hit houses of worship.
'Some governors have deemed a liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It's not right. So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,' Trump said, reading from a statement.
'I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now,' he continued. But getting a waiver will be a tall order, 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. These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church synagogue, go to their mosque.'
A number of states – including those run by Trump allies – have kept liquor stores open among lockdown orders, and some state have shown upticks in drinking.
Pastor Emily Nesdahl leads a virtual Sunday service online broadcast due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions at Peace Lutheran church, featuring drawings of parishioners taped to the pews, in Burlington, North Dakota, U.S. April 26, 2020. Picture taken April 26, 2020. REUTERS/Dan Koeck
People walk through the church before a press conference with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, at Our Saviour Parish in Manhattan regarding the reopening of churches in the archdiocese amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 21, 2020 in New York City
The Rev. Jorge Gomez walks to the altar before conducting morning Mass with no worshippers present at the Basilica Of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle on Saturday, March 21, 2020, in San Juan, Texas. The Mass was broadcast on the church's Facebook page. The Diocese of Brownsville announced the the public will not be allowed in the church to stop the spread of the coronavirus
Trump said governors who sought waivers would not get them
Trump walked off without taking questions after making a statement Friday
Houses of worship across the country closed as states banned gathering of more than ten, and remained show even as an Easter reopening Trump once touted came and went.
There were early clusters of coronavirus in some churches, including one in the Washington, D.C. area, as well as at funerals and other services. Some affected dozens of people as worshippers embraced each other, took holy sacrament, or sang in choirs or engaged in other communal activites.
Churches who meet threshold of employees have been able to get government small business assistance to keep paid staff on the payroll.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany attacked journalists who questioned the proposal and wanted to know on what basis Trump was exerting federal power over governors' orders.
'Boy it's interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed,' she snapped.
That prompted Reuters' Jeff Mason to interject: 'I object to that. I go to church. I'm dying to go back to church. The question that we're asking you and would like to have asked the president and Dr. [Deborah] Birx is, is it safe? And if it's no safe, is the president trying to encourage or does the president agree with Dr. Birx that people should wait?'
'Jeff, it is safe to reopen your churches and you do so in accordance with the guidelines,' McEnany responded.
She wouldn't respond when pressed to cite Trump's authority to override governor's stay-home orders. Trump 'wants to see all these churches open,' she said.
Trump forecast the announcement in Michigan Thursday where he was photographed in a mask for the first time
NYPD giving order to evacuate and close the synagogue because the Hasidic Jewish community is not respecting socio-distance. Trump also mentioned mosques and synagogues
The push comes as Trump has seen a drop in public approval. Hours before he announced the policy, he bashed Fox News for its polls, after one had him losing to Joe Biden by eight points nationally.
Other polling has shown a drop in support for Trump among white Evangelicals, a traditional base of support, white mainline Protestants, and white Catholics.
A source close to the campaign told pointed Politico to a Public Religion Research Institute survey that had Trump's favorability down by double-digits among all three groups.
Trump mentioned three different faith and triumphed in the decision, which accords with new Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
'Many millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life. The ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe as they gather and pray,' Trump said.
'I know them well. They love their congregations. They love their people they don't want anything bad happened to them or to anybody else,' he added.
'The governor's need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend. If they don't do it, I will override the governors in America,' he said, although he did not state what authority he would use.
'We need more prayer not less,' he said, before abruptly leaving a press conference that other officials carried on. Trump did not answer questions about whether he would attend church. He attended an Easter service with an evangelical minster remotely.
The CDC had prepared guidance for churches and other institutions on reopening, but the release got delayed.
'I said, 'You better put it out.' And they're doing it,' Trump said Thursday in Michigan. 'And they're going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We've got to get our churches open.'
A church in Northern California that defied the governor's orders and held a service on Mother's Day was attended by a person who later tested positive for the coronavirus, exposing more than 180 churchgoers.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House's coronavirus task force, said that faith community leaders should be in touch with their local health departments and can take steps to mitigate risks, including making sure those who are at high risk of severe complications remain protected.
'There's a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people so we decrease the amount of exposure that anyone would have to an asymptomatic,' she said.
White evangelical Christians have been among the most loyal members of the president's base, and the White House has been careful to attend to religious communities' concerns over the course of the crisis, including holding numerous conference calls with them.
A person familiar with the White House's thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said Trump had called the news conference, which had not been on his public schedule, because he wanted to be the face of church reopenings, knowing how well it would play with his base.
Churches around the country have filed legal challenges to the virus closures. In Minnesota, after Democratic Gov. Tim Walz this week declined to lift restrictions on churches, Roman Catholic and some Lutheran leaders said they would defy his ban and resume worship services. They called the restrictions unconstitutional and unfair since restaurants, malls and bars were allowed limited reopening.
The CDC more than a month ago sent the Trump administration documents the agency had drafted outlining specific steps various kinds of organizations could follow as they work to reopen safely.
The administration first shelved the documents but eventually released guidance for six other types of organizations, but not houses of worship. A Trump administration official had said there had been concerns about the propriety of the government interfering with the operation of places of worship.
Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, argued that 'protections against religious discrimination aren't suspended during an emergency.'
Two senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, concerns about religious freedom had since been resolved.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo immediately balked at Trump's pressure and said she would keep her state on a timetable to reopen public worship May 30.
We're not ready. Honestly, that would be reckless. It's Friday. They're not ready,' said Raimondo. So no, that's not happening in Rhode Island.'
Former New Jersey GOP Gov. Christie Todd Whitman tweeted in response: 'Would that I thought this had anything to do with the President's concern for the spiritual well being of Americans and not just satisfying his base.'