Gov. Newsom promises plan to reopen churches as Trump demands immediate action

SACRAMENTO - Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to provide plans Monday for reopening California churches amid mounting pressure to allow in-person religious services both from protesters and President Donald Trump, who is demanding that governors take action immediately.

Newsom’s comment comes just days after he said opening churches to congregants was “a few weeks away.” The governor said he has been meeting with religious leaders for weeks to craft a plan for the safe reopening of churches for services, including efforts to sanitize pews, ensure safe distancing and other safety protocols.

“We look forward to churches reopening in a safe and responsible manner, and we have guidelines that we anticipated completing on Monday and we’re on track to do just that,” Newsom said during a COVID-19 briefing held at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville on Friday.

Newsom’s comments came hours after Trump made an unexpected appearance in the White House briefing room to declare that he was designating churches “essential” businesses so that they can immediately reopen.

Trump, who has said he would leave decisions about easing public health guidance to states but has often criticized decisions by individual governors, threatened that he would “override” states that didn’t heed his directive, though he has no clear legal authority to do so.

His comments, in tenor and tone, made clear that the announcement was largely about signaling that he continues to fight for religious conservatives, a core element of his political base where Trump’s support has eroded somewhat in recent weeks amid broader questions about his response to the pandemic.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” Trump said. “It’s not right. So, I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

Speaking to the possibility that some governors might not immediately adhere to his instructions, he suggested they reach out to him directly even though the matter, he asserted, would not be open to discussion.

“If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me - but they are not going to be successful in that call,” he said. “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend.”

When asked about Trump’s comments, Newsom sidestepped the issue, saying his administration has been working with faith leaders to allow services to resume as quickly as can be done while protecting the public health.

“We have been very aggressive in trying to put together guidelines that will do justice to people’s health and their fundamental need and desire to practice their faith,” Newsom said. “We are looking forward to a very positive working relationship with faith leaders, as we make public those documents and look forward to working through this issue in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.”

Trump took a far more confrontational approach on Friday than his public health advisers. After delays and revisions ordered by the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released nonbinding guidelines for places of worship to reopen while still advising them to act “in accordance with the guidance and directives of state and local authorities.”

In addition to the usual recommendations for mask wearing, hand-washing and social distancing, the CDC urged religious institutions for the time being to avoid sharing prayer books, passing collection plates or offering buffet-style meals. It suggested suspending choirs or congregant singing and chanting because that could spread the virus through emission of aerosols.

While Trump demanded that churches and other worship houses reopen this weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House pandemic coordinator, offered more measured advice. “Maybe they can’t go this week if there’s a high number of COVID cases,” she told reporters after the president left the briefing room. “Maybe they wait another week. But there is a way to social distance, like you are here, in places of worship.”

In his comments in Yountville, Newsom emphasized his own religious upbringing in the Catholic Church, saying he had deep admiration and respect for the faith of millions of Californians and the need for them to practice that faith. The governor said the vast majority of religious leaders across the state understand the need to protect the public health and have been working with his administration to ensure services, when the resume, will be conducted in a safe manner.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the Newsom administration warning that the state’s stay-at-home order may discriminate against religious groups and violate their constitutional rights. The letter accused Newsom of “unequal treatment of faith communities” in restricting their ability to gather and resume services.

“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Eric Dreiband, an assistant attorney general and the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, stated in the letter.

Shortly after that warning, more than 1,200 pastors in California vowed to hold in-person services on May 31, Pentecost Sunday, in defiance of the state moratorium on religious gatherings.

Robert Tyler, an attorney representing a Lodi church that has challenged the governor’s order in court, said pastors signed a “Declaration of Essentiality” that asserts their churches are as essential as grocery stores and hardware stores and should be allowed to reopen.

“We believe you are attempting to act in the best interests of the state,” Tyler wrote to Newsom, “but the restrictions have gone too far and for too long.”

Newsom, in an interview with Stephanie Ruhle of MSNBC on Thursday, said California was just a “few weeks away from meaningful modifications that will allow just that to happen.”

A federal court judge in Sacramento recently issued a ruling that Newsom’s stay-at-home order did not violate the constitutional rights to free assembly and religion when the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi was ordered to cease services.

Last week, a federal judge in San Diego denied a request from a Chula Vista church for a temporary restraining order against the state that would allow it to hold in-person services.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who took questions after the president’s comments Friday, struggled to cite any legal authority for the president to order governors to allow religious services to resume, attempting to deflect by suggesting that reporters questioning the validity of Trump’s move wanted churches to remain closed.

She said the White House would “leave it to faith communities to reopen,” noting the newly released CDC guidelines and acknowledging that the decision would be “up to the governors.”

This article includes information from the New York Times.

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