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Trump Declares Houses of Worship Are ‘Essential,’ Will ‘Override’ Governors’ Orders

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President Donald Trump proclaimed Friday that churches and other houses of worship are “essential” and called on governors who have shut them down amid the coronavirus pandemic to allow them to reopen this weekend.

“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump announced at the White House.

He said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had prepared a draft of reopening guidelines for churches and other houses of worship weeks ago that included measures such as maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.

But that guidance had been delayed for more than a month until the president abruptly reversed course Thursday.

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“I said, ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said Thursday 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.”

It is unclear what the final guidelines will say, but public health agencies have generally advised people to avoid large gatherings and remain 6 feet away from others when possible.

Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and took issue with other businesses and services that have been allowed to continue to operate.

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“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, the president 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 said.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House’s coronavirus task force, said 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.

Churches around the country have filed legal challenges to their closure by government officials, arguing those actions violate the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and assembly.

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In Minnesota, after Democratic Gov. Tim Walz this week declined to lift restrictions on churches, Roman Catholic and 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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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