Donald Trump announced Friday that he has designated all places of worship as "essential" services and called on state lawmakers to reopen religious institutions this weekend.
"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left our churches and houses of worship. It's not right. So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential," he said during a White House press briefing. "I call upon our governors to allow churches and places of worship to open right now. If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me, but they’re not going to be successful in that call."
He continued: "These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue—go to their mosque. Many millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life."
The COVID-19 lockdowns have created conflict among religious communities as states have prohibited large gatherings in an effort to mitigate the spread of the disease. While some houses of worship have opted to conduct their services virtually, others have defied social distancing orders and continued in-person services.
Trump pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interim guidelines for religious institutions. The recommendations included putting a limit on the size of gatherings, encouraging the use of facemasks as well as frequent cleaning and disinfecting. The president went on to say he was confident faith leaders would do everything they could to ensure the safety of their congregations.
"The governors 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, we need more prayer, not less."
As pointed out by The New York Times, it's unclear what authority Trump has to "override" governors who refuse to reopen places of worship.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, later told reporters that religious leaders should work with state leaders to reopen places of worship, but said the reopenings may not occur as soon as the president would like.
"I think each one of the leaders in the faith community should be in touch with their local health department so they can communicate to their congregants," she said during the press briefing. "Certainly people that have significant comorbidities, we want them protected. I know those houses of worship want to protect them. Maybe they can't go this week if there's high numbers of COVID cases. Maybe they wait another week. But there is a way to social distance ... in places of worship."