WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - President Donald Trump said he would order states to allow places of worship to reopen from stay-at-home restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus outbreak, promising to override any governor who refuses without explaining what authority he had to do so.
"The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now," Trump said on Friday (May 22) in a statement to reporters at the White House.
"By this weekend."
"If they don't do it I will override the governors," he added.
Churches, synagogues and mosques would be declared "essential" services under CDC guidelines, he said.
The president left the briefing without taking questions.
It is far from clear Trump can impose his views on states that want to keep houses of worship closed or restricted.
Health and safety rules are primarily the domain of the states, in part because of the explicit preservation of state authority in the Constitution's 10th Amendment and Supreme Court rulings that have enforced limits on federal power.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to say what law gives Trump the power to override state orders to churches, calling it a hypothetical question.
"The president will strongly encourage every governor" to allow churches to reopen, she said.
But the president has shown increasing exasperation with state social distancing regulations that have collapsed the US economy, as he spurs Americans to return to normal economic and social life.
The move is also a nod to Trump's strong support among evangelical Christians at a time when overall public approval for his response to the coronavirus outbreak is sliding.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll published on Friday found that 60 per cent of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the outbreak, with just 39 per cent approving.
There have been more than 1.5 million cases of the disease in the US and at least 94,000 deaths in what is the world's largest publicly reported outbreak, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Recommendations for restarting activities by religious organisations were not part of CDC suggestions for opening workplaces, schools and restaurants released over the weekend, though they had been included in a draft first reported by the Associated Press.
The release gave detailed suggestions for social distancing, hygienic practices and symptom-checking that are in many cases tailored to the organisation and its activities.
As with hospitals, long-term care facilities, family gatherings and other places people meet, religious organisations have been notable sites of coronavirus outbreaks since the pandemic's start.
In mid-March, for example, a Bible study group meeting was tied to an outbreak of 35 confirmed cases in a rural county in Arkansas, according to a CDC report on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice sided with a Virginia church that sued after its pastor was issued a criminal citation and summons for violating the state's social distancing orders, which prohibited services of more than 10 people.
Attorney-General William Barr has directed top Justice Department prosecutors to take legal action against state and local officials if their coronavirus restrictions go too far, saying "the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis."
Trump took no questions after his announcement.
Deborah Birx, the epidemiologist who coordinates the White House's coronavirus task force, said in a news conference after the president's remarks that the Washington, DC metropolitan area has become an epicentre of the US outbreak, with the highest rate of positive test results for the virus in the country.