As the country moves toward reopening, Americans have been very clear that they don’t want to rush things. Americans understand that the economy is taking a hit due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they also know that lives are at risk. The people are sending our leaders a message: get the balance right.
Nevertheless, President Donald Trump and members of his administration continue to push for a full reopening, and increasingly they are prodding houses of worship to lead the way.
The administration has been active on several fronts. The New York Times reported last week that portions of a draft set of recommendations prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intended to provide guidance for reopening the country were blocked by the administration in part because of how they treat houses of worship.
White House officials, The Times reported, “rejected the recommendations over concerns that they were overly prescriptive, infringed on religious rights and risked further damaging an economy that Mr. Trump was banking on to recover quickly.”
The Times quoted Roger Severino, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, who said, “Governments have a duty to instruct the public on how to stay safe during this crisis and can absolutely do so without dictating to people how they should worship God.”
Other top administration officials have been drafted into the plan. Vice President Mike Pence was sent to Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday where he met with religious leaders. Media reports indicated that many of the clergy who met with Pence are eager to get back to in-person services, but Rabbi David Kaufman of Temple B’nai Jeshurun felt differently, telling Pence it’s still too early. (It has since been reported that Pence has been exposed to coronavirus by someone on his staff and is self-quarantining.)
In addition, U.S. Attorney General William Barr has been increasingly intervening in court cases on behalf of churches seeking to force government to allow them to reopen.
What’s going on here? Remember, this is the Trump administration so it’s likely there’s a political calculus behind it. A raucous clown car stuffed with a teeming alliance of anti-government conservatives, virus deniers, conspiracy theorist oddballs and others has been agitating for reopening the country no matter what the health consequences. A few misguided religious leaders have joined that chorus. Trump has egged them on, perhaps in the belief that siding with the crank caucus will help him nail down a core faction of his base as he heads into the November election.
Maybe it will – but it’s turning off everyone else. A recent poll by the Associated Press (AP), done in conjunction with the University of Chicago Divinity School, asked people whether it’s a good idea to allow religious services right now. A mere 9% backed allowing them with no oversight. 42% were willing to permit services as long as proper social distancing was observed, while 48% said in-person religious services should not be allowed at all. As the AP noted, “Even among Americans who identify with a religion, 45% say in-person services shouldn’t be allowed at all.”
Trump often sides with his Christian nationalist allies against the will of the American people. It’s frustrating and reckless, but this time, it’s all the more serious since it might end up costing some of our fellow citizens their lives.
P. S. Remember, Americans United continues to protect religious freedom and public health by explaining to government leaders why they must treat secular and religious gatherings the same in their temporary bans on large gatherings and by urging courts to deny requests for unconstitutional religious exemptions to these bans. Join us to support our work.