In reversal, White House tells CDC to post church guidance

By Zeke Miller and Mike Stobbe, Associated Press | Posted - May 21, 2020 at 3:45 p.m.


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WASHINGTON (AP) — After refusing for weeks to release reopening guidance for churches, the Trump administration on Thursday abruptly changed course — with the president saying he had instructed health officials to put the advice out.

While visiting Michigan, President Donald Trump said he had discussed the issue with leadership at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I said ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said at a Ford Motor Co. plant repurposed to make ventilators in Ypsilanti Township. “And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We got to get our churches open.”

The church guidance is coming out “hopefully soon,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said Thursday afternoon. A senior administration official said it was expected to be released Friday.

More than a month ago, the CDC sent the Trump administration documents the agency had drafted with specific steps different types of organizations could follow as they gradually reopened. The advice was for seven types of organizations, including schools, restaurants and religious facilities.

Those drafts included detailed information for churches wanting to restart in-person services, with suggestions including maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.

The Trump administration initially shelved all the documents, but they were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations. Some health leaders criticized the move, saying organizations need as much science-based guidance as possible as they try to reopen without sparking new outbreaks.

Guidance for the six other types of organizations was released last week and this week, but administration officials had said none would be forthcoming for houses of worship.

Last week, a Trump administration official speaking on condition of anonymity said there were concerns about the propriety of the government making specific dictates to places of worship. And Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, argued that “protections against religious discrimination aren’t suspended during an emergency."

But on Thursday, Trump painted a different picture, suggesting he had prodded CDC to put out guidance to help churches reopen.

“We’ve got to open our churches. People want to go in,” he said.

Two senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said administration officials did have concerns on religious freedom but those were resolved. They did not elaborate about how they were resolved, but they noted the health advisories are not requirements.

After the AP reported on the draft guidance for faith organizations, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, praised the CDC’s advice as “informative without being heavy-handed.” But as the guidance was withheld, churches in several states proceeded with plans for reopening while many others remain closed.

Maggie Siddiqi, director of the faith initiative at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the delay reflected political concerns within the administration that make for a “confusing and problematic” posture. Siddiqi's group is recommending that no houses of worship reopen.

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Stobbe reported from New York. AP reporter Darlene Superville in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan, and Elana Schor in New York contributed to this report.

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