Trump Demands States Let Places of Faith Open, Chafing at Limits
U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Demands States Let Places of Faith Open, Chafing at Limits

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump demanded on Friday that states allow houses of worship to reopen from stay-at-home restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus outbreak, yet his authority to override governors’ orders is restrained by constitutional limits.

“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now,” Trump said Friday in a statement to reporters at the White House. “For this weekend.”

“If they don’t do it I will override the governors,” he added.

Trump cited no legal grounds that would allow him to impose his wishes on states that want to keep houses of worship closed or restricted. Health and safety rules are primarily the domain of the states, in part because of the explicit preservation of state powers in the Constitution’s 10th Amendment and Supreme Court rulings that have enforced limits on federal power.

Trump said churches, synagogues and mosques would be declared “essential” services under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

He left the briefing without taking questions.

But the CDC posted “non-binding public health guidance” on its website on Friday that the agency described as “for consideration only.”

Religious institutions should promote healthy hygiene, including hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes, and encourage the use of masks by staff and congregants, the CDC said in the guidance. The agency also recommended stepping up cleaning and disinfection of surfaces and shared objects, and ensuring that facilities are well-ventilated.

Additionally, the CDC said faith communities should practice social distancing and minimize sharing of worship materials and other items.

In April, Trump claimed he had total authority to order states to reopen the economy. He then backed away after a backlash from governors who said he was overstepping constitutional bounds.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to say what law gives Trump the power to override state orders to churches, calling it a hypothetical question.

”The president will strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen,” she said.

Jonathan Adler, a constitutional law professor who teaches at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said Trump “can’t give orders to states.”

“The federal government doesn’t have the authority to dictate these sorts of policies to the states, and the president certainly lacks the authority to do so,” Adler said.

Trump has shown increasing exasperation with state social distancing regulations that have closed down the U.S. economy, as he spurs Americans to return to normal economic and social life. The move is also a nod to his strong support among evangelical Christians at a time when overall public approval for his response to the coronavirus outbreak is sliding.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll published Friday found that 60% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the crisis, with just 39% approving. There have been more than 1.5 million cases of the disease in the U.S. and at least 94,000 deaths in what is the world’s largest publicly reported outbreak, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said Friday that his state had been working with religious leaders to develop guidelines for safely reopening houses of worship, and those guidelines would be issued no later than Monday.

“At a time of so much anxiety and uncertainty, faith and that devotion to something higher and better and bigger than yourself becomes even more pronounced and more profound and more important,” Newsom, a Democrat, said at a press conference on the state’s virus-fighting efforts.

The governor, asked about the president’s demand during the press conference, said California officials had not been waiting around for directions from Washington, but he did not criticize it or offer a counter-argument.

Religious Leader’s Rebuke

But Trump’s statement drew a rebuke from Jack Moline, a rabbi who is president of the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal religious group.

“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 that the Trump White House suppressed for the sake of its cronies on the religious right,” Moline said in a statement.

Recommendations for restarting activities by religious organizations weren’t part of CDC suggestions for opening workplaces, schools and restaurants released last weekend, though they had been included in a draft first reported by the Associated Press. The release gave detailed suggestions for social distancing, hygienic practices and symptom-checking that are in many cases tailored to an organization and its activities.

As with hospitals, long-term care facilities, family gatherings and other places people meet, religious organizations have been notable sites of coronavirus outbreaks since the pandemic’s start. In mid-March, for example, a Bible study group meeting was tied to an outbreak of 35 confirmed cases in a rural county in Arkansas, according to a CDC report Tuesday.

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice sided with a Virginia church that sued after its pastor was issued a criminal citation and summons for violating the state’s social distancing orders, which prohibited services of more than 10 people.

Attorney General William Barr has told top Justice Department prosecutors to take legal action against state and local officials if their coronavirus restrictions go too far, saying “the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.”

Deborah Birx, the epidemiologist who coordinates the White House’s coronavirus task force, said in a news conference after the president’s remarks that the Washington metropolitan area has become an epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, with the highest rate of positive test results for the virus in the country.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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