May 22, 2020
The Center for Inquiry today condemned President Donald Trump for pressuring governors to designate churches across the country as an “essential service” exempt from stay-at-home orders that are meant to arrest the spread of COVID-19. According to POLITICO Magazine, Trump “commanded” governors to reopen churches and threatened to “override” them if they refused.
“The President appears confused, and not for the first time, regarding the powers given to him by the Constitution,” said Nick Little, CFI’s general counsel and legal director. “The President cannot command governors to act in this way, and it would be up to the federal court system, not the executive, to determine if the First Amendment required the opening of churches.”
Stay-at-home orders are a critical part of state efforts to protect the health and safety of their citizens. Because COVID-19 is a highly contagious airborne disease, stay-at-home orders slow the spread of the virus, helping to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients. The designation of “essential service” allows the public limited access to services that are necessary for subsistence or survival.
Throughout the pandemic and the shutdown, the overwhelming majority of religious organizations have been acting responsibly, shifting their worship services in ways in which health can still be preserved. These responsible religious groups have shown that Trump’s action is not necessary to permit freedom of religion but instead is a political ploy aimed at appealing to a small section of religious Americans.
“Trump’s order is unconstitutional and it puts communities in danger, said Jason Lemieux, CFI’s director of government affairs. “To declare churches ‘essential’ privileges religion over secular community groups that provide every bit as much meaning to the lives of their members. Trump is gratuitously spreading a deadly virus in the service of partisan politics.”
“This is a blatant appeal to Trump’s evangelical base, who refuse to accept reasonable limits on practices that cause harm to their members and others in their community,” said Little. “There is no conceivable justification for pandering to an extreme religious element in the midst of a global pandemic. When and how communities reopen should be determined based on scientific evidence, not on electoral calculations and popularity tests.”