Donald Trump has declared churches, mosques and synagogues “essential services” and threatened to override governors who refuse to reopen them this weekend – a power he does not possess.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” the president told reporters at the White House on Friday. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”
Trump added: “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.”
After his two-minute statement, the president left the briefing room podium without taking questions.
His remarks sowed confusion because the federal government does not have the constitutional right to unilaterally order individual states to reopen businesses, churches or schools. But they did seem likely to play well with his support base: Trump won four in five Christian evangelical voters in the 2016 presidential election.
Earlier this week the Centers for Disease Control published a 60-page plan for restaurants, schools, childcare programs, mass transport and other businesses about reopening. But it omitted details about houses of worship and faith-based organisations.
There has been friction between Trump and state governors during the coronavirus pandemic. Last month the president claimed he had “total” authority over reopening plans but then appeared to backpedal from that position.
At Friday’s briefing, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, deflected questions about Trump’s threat to override governors and clashed with reporters.
“Boy, it’s interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed,” she said sardonically.
Jeff Mason of Reuters replied: “Kayleigh, I object to that. I go to church. I’m dying to go back to church. The question that we’re asking you, and would like to have asked the president and Dr Birx, is is it safe?”