Trump’s urging stokes furor in debate over in-person worship

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FILE - In this April 11, 2020, file photo, a person films pastor Nicolas Sanchez, center left, celebrating Easter Vigil Mass at his church decorated with candles and pictures sent by his parishioners attached to their pews at St. Patrick Church in North Hollywood, Calif. The Friday, May 22 anticipated release of new federal guidance on resuming in-person religious services during the pandemic comes ahead of a week that was already poised to rattle whats been a weeks-long national balancing act pitting the call to worship against the risk of the coronavirus.(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

NEW YORK – President Donald Trump’s declaration that religious services should be “essential” comes at a precarious point in the national balancing act that pits the call of worship against the risk of coronavirus.

Even before Trump’s comments Friday, which came alongside the release of guidance for reopening faith organizations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Christian leaders in several states made plans to welcome back congregants on the week of Pentecost, May 31.

The new CDC guidance could energize houses of worship that might want to reopen their doors, despite evidence of ongoing risk of the virus spreading through communal gatherings. While it suggests steps such as asking congregants to cover their faces and limiting the sharing of worship aids, the CDC document says it is “not meant to regulate or prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities.”

The guidance released Friday is similar to draft guidance drawn up by the CDC more than a month ago but shelved by administration officials. One difference: The earlier version discussed opening in stages, such as video streaming and drive-in services, with later phases allowing in-person gatherings limited in size and with social distancing. The guidance released Friday has no discussion of a phased-in opening.

Tension over when and how to reopen houses of worship has varied depending on the state, as different areas set their own pace for easing pandemic stay-at-home orders. Trump called for the resumption of in-person religious services repeatedly this week and said Friday that he would “override” governors that did not do so, though it's unclear whether Trump has any authority to supersede state leaders on the issue.

Still, the president's comments come less than six months ahead of a reelection bid in which turnout from his conservative evangelical Christian base could prove critical. Trump suggested on Thursday that friction over the issue was more common in states run by Democrats because “churches are not being treated with respect” by many their governors.

One of those Democrats, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, was warned this week by Trump’s Justice Department that the state’s phased-in plan to restart economic activity puts an “unfair burden” on worship by not permitting churches to open earlier in the process. More than 1,200 California pastors are planning to restart worship on May 31 despite Newsom’s stay-at-home orders, which he has said would likely allow for religious gatherings within weeks.

Among the California pastors leading the call for resuming in-person gathering is Danny Carroll of Water of Life Community Church in Fontana. State officials “don’t understand that people of faith need contact, that they need to worship together,” Carroll said in an interview. “We’re trying to close the gap – thoughtfully, humbly, nicely.”