WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s administration is expected to release new guidance soon on reopening churches and other places of worship during the coronavirus pandemic, a day after the president slammed Democratic governors for what he described as moving too slowly to bring parishioners back to their pews.
"They’re going to be opening up very soon," Trump said Friday of places of worship. "I consider them essential."
He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would announce its recommendations later on Friday.
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.
Trump presaged the move Thursday as he departed the White Hose for a trip to Michigan, where he toured a Ford Motor Co. plant that is manufacturing ventilators.
The president criticized Democrats for the lockdowns, though his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged churches to modify their services.
"The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors," he said.
Coronavirus: After church defies California orders, 180 congregants exposed to COVID-19
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.
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. The delay drew fire from some critics.
"The coronavirus is just as contagious in a restaurant opened prematurely as in a house of worship," said Maureen O'Leary, advocacy associate for Interfaith Alliance, a group that advocates for the separation of church and state. "The White House’s move to delay CDC recommendations for reopening houses of worship is a shocking display of partisanship over public safety."
The CDC also 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.
The 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.
'Go their own pace': Iowa churches try to find balance, regain normalcy
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, The Associated Press