Official White House Photo (Public Domain)

DES MOINES, Iowa – President Donald Trump said that houses of worship are essential and called on governors to open them during an impromptu press briefing at the White House on Friday. 

“Today, I’m identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogues, and mosques as essential places that provide essential services,” he said. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. Now, right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship, essential.”

Trump said he directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue new guidance considering houses of worship essential in the federal response to COVID-19.

“I call upon governors to allow our places of worship to open right now. If there is any question they are going to have to call me, but they are not going to be successful in that call,” he stated. 

“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 ministers, pastors, rabbis, Imams, and other faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe as they gather and pray,” Trump argued. 

He said governors need to do right away, even in time for this week.

“If they don’t do it, I will override them,” Trump said. “In America, we need more prayer, not less.”

Several states, such as California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York, still do not allow congregations to gather in person. States like Calfornia and Minnesota, include churches later in their phased reopening plans while allowing similar groups to gather earlier. 

Attorney General William Barr issued a memo providing addressing the closures, and he urged all 94 U.S. attorneys and the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division to watch for violations of citizens’ constitutional rights, in particular, their First Amendment rights. 

“(E)ven in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” he wrote.

In an earlier statement, Barr stated, “Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”

Kelly Shackleford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel of First Liberty Institute praised Trump’s remarks. 

“The discrimination that has been occurring against churches and houses of worship has been shocking. We applaud the President’s strong stance today, demanding that these attacks must stop and that churches and houses of worship be freed to safely open. Americans are going to malls and restaurants. They need to be able to go to their houses of worship,” he said.

Stephen Crampton, Special Counsel at the Thomas More Society, agreed.

“We appreciate and fully endorse the President’s call to reopen the churches. Churches are essential organizations; they provide essential services that are desperately needed during these desperate times. As President Trump said, ‘we need more prayer in America, not less.’ The discriminatory labeling of churches as nonessential by many governors across the nation has infringed our rights and injured our recovery from this terrible pandemic. It is high time to reopen the churches,” he said.

The senior legal advisor for Trump’s re-election campaign and one of the president’s attorneys, Jenna Ellis, defended his statement on Twitter. 

“Constitutionally speaking, President Trump is right to say he will override governors in declaring houses of worship essential,” she stated. “Governors don’t have the power to declare them non-essential. Every gov is ultimately under the US Constitution as our supreme law.”

Caffeinated Thoughts asked Ellis to explain how President Trump’s threat to override governors was constitutional. 

“The DOJ has already intervened in religious liberty cases, and the CDC is an executive agency. All executive power is vested in the President, per Article II, Sec 1,” she responded.

However, ordering the DOJ to advocate on behalf of citizens and order the CDC to change guidance is not the same thing as overriding a governor’s emergency order. 

Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution does give the president full authority over the executive branch of the federal government, but the 10th Amendment reserves police powers, including emergency powers, for the states. 

So it is unclear how Trump would “override” a governor’s emergency order as it relates to churches, but federal courts can. 

That said, the constitutionality of governors closing churches is questionable in light of the First Amendment, and state and municipality orders placing extra burden on churches have not withstood scrutiny in court.

Whether governors respond to the CDC’s new guidance and Trump’s warning remains to be seen.

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