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, even as some parts of the nation remain under coronavirus lockdown.
"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.
Despite the threat of further spreading the virus. Trump said that, "governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend." And he warned that if governors don't abide by his request, he will "override" them, though it's unclear what authority he has to do so.
The dictate comes as Trump has been pushing for the country to reopen as he tries to stop an economic free fall months before he faces reelection. 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.
Following Trump's announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith that include taking steps to limit the size of gatherings and considering holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.
"It is safe to reopen your churches if you do so in accordance with the guidelines," said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
Public health agencies have generally advised people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and encouraged Americans to remain 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from others when possible. Some parts of the country remain under some version of a lockdown, including Washington, D.C.
Trump stressed the importance of churches in many communities and took issue with other businesses and services that have been allowed to continue to operate.
"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," he added.
In-person religious services have been vectors of transmission of the virus. A person who attended a religious service on Mother's Day at a church in Northern California that defied the governor's orders against reopening 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.
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.
Some welcomed the move, including Kelly Shackelford, president of the conservative First Liberty Institute.
"The discrimination that has been occurring against churches and houses of worship has been shocking," he said in a statement. "Americans are going to malls and restaurants. They need to be able to go to their houses of worship."
But Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, said it was "completely irresponsible" for Trump to command a mass reopening of houses of worship.
"Faith is essential and community is necessary; however, neither requires endangering the people who seek to participate in them," he said. "The virus does not discriminate between types of gatherings, and neither should the president."
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. Eventually, it released guidance for six other types of organizations, but not houses of worship. A Trump administration official had said there were 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."
Then Trump abruptly reversed course Thursday.
"I said, 'You better put it out.' And they're doing it," Trump said 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."
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire in New York and Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed to this report.