Efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stop the spread of coronavirus in houses of worship were stymied by the Trump administration, recently released emails show.
In May 2020, with the virus raging and before vaccines were available, the CDC sent a proposed guidance to the White House that proposed recommending virtual services for houses of worship. Trump administration officials balked at the recommendations, reported The Washington Post.
The guidance subsequently issued by the CDC contained no recommendations for virtual services or holding services outside while congregations sat in their cars.
The CDC, noting that several outbreaks of the virus had been traced to church services, wanted to discourage people from gathering in large numbers in enclosed spaces where high-risk activities like singing and close worship would occur. But Trump administration officials, apparently eager to curry favor with conservative evangelicals who chafed at such restrictions, removed the language.
The Post reported that Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser, discussed the matter with Paul Ray, who served as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
“I have proposed several passages for deletion,” Ray wrote in an email. Some of the CDC’s recommendations, he insisted, “raise religious liberty concerns.” Ray recommended that the guidance be published “contingent on striking the offensive passages.”
In a reply, Conway thanked Ray for “holding firm against this newest round of mission creep.”
Under pressure, the CDC also rescinded a statement that singing in church would spread the virus.
Ray told The Post that his actions were justified.
“Each faith tradition – not the federal government – is best situated to understand the demands of its own beliefs and therefore to choose, among the multiple effective means of preventing the virus’s spread, those means that best comport with its beliefs,” Ray wrote. “The edits proposed to this document were designed to keep Americans safe while respecting their right to worship as they believe they should.”
At the time of the controversy, the CDC was advising Americans to avoid gathering in large numbers. Secular events, such as movies, plays, concerts and lectures, had been halted. Most religious leaders agreed with the shut-down orders and moved their services online. However, an aggressive band of right-wing evangelicals fought the stay-home orders and battled them in court.
Officials at the CDC were dismayed by the Trump administration’s stance.
“I must admit, as someone who has been speaking with churches and pastors on this (and as someone who goes to church), I am not sure [I] see a public health reason to take down and replace” the original guidance, Jay Butler, a senior CDC official, wrote on May 23, 2020. “This is not good public health – I am very troubled on this Sunday morning that there will be people who will get sick and perhaps die because of what we were forced to do.”
The emails came to light as part of an investigation launched by Democrats in the House of Representatives who are looking into allegations that the Trump administration interfered with the CDC’s efforts to respond effectively in the early days of the pandemic.