President Donald Trump ordered Friday the immediate reopening of churches that have been closed for weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"If they don't do it, I will override the governors," Trump said in brief remarks at the White House on Friday after days of signaling that he planned to call for the reopening. "In America we need more prayer, not less."
Trump didn't take answers from reporters and it's unclear what authority he would exert to overstep governors.
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany would not answer when repeatedly asked during Friday's briefing.
"The president will strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen," she told reporters. "We can all hope that this Sunday, people are allowed to pray to their gods all across the country."
Trump has highlighted his eagerness for churches to reopen during a series of meetings and public remarks in recent days.
During a meeting with black community leaders in Michigan on Thursday, Trump was asked why he was prioritizing churches in the reopening plans.
"I think churches, to me, they're so important, in terms of the psyche of our country. I mean, to me, they use the word 'essential,'" he said. "I think churches are essential. They're so important. People want to be in their churches."
"It's wonderful to sit home and watch something on a laptop, but it can never be the same as being in a church and being with your friends," he added.
Trump told the group he personally instructed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release guidelines for the safe reopening of churches ahead of the weekend.
The new guidance includes directions to consult with local health officials, maintain proper hygiene supplies, require cloth face coverings, observe safe distancing, avoid sharing items among congregants and follow other mitigation measures.
During his Friday announcement, Trump noted that liquor stores and abortion clinics had been allowed to remain open during the near nation-wide shutdown because they qualified as "essential" services but churches didn't.
"It's not right," Trump said.
Trump's push to return churchgoers to pews that have been empty for weeks comes amid reports of outbreaks linked to churches that have reopened.
In a statement, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in Texas said several members, including two priests who celebrated recent Masses, had tested positive, prompting the immediate reshuttering of all services at its Holy Ghost Church.
The CDC released a report this week highlighting a coronavirus outbreak in Arkansas linked to a rural church. According to the CDC's findings, 35 of 92 attendees at the church tested positive for COVID-19, including three deaths. They tracked contact and confirmed the spread to 26 more cases in the community, including one death.
Trump spoke with more than 1,600 faith leaders by phone for more than three hours Thursday evening to preview the new directive before formally announcing it.
"(Reopening) was one of the issues that was communicated very strongly," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who was on the president's call, told Newsweek.
Perkins, who has been one of Trump's closest Christian conservative allies, said the president's goal was to provide guidance for reopening to make it safer for churches to resume services.
"The churches are gonna open," Perkins said. "Somebody needs to provide guidance."
Perkins also spoke directly with the CDC director about the plans, he said.
The president's goal, Perkins said, is to tailor already-existing guidance for resuming business and social activities to religious needs and make churches safe.
McEnany didn't directly answer a question of whether the president would support faith leaders ignoring orders from governors who don't allow reopening.
"The president's been very clear, he wants the churches to reopen," she told reporters.
Perkins, a Louisiana native, said the Trump administration doesn't support activities like those of a Louisiana pastor who has gained national attention for flouting the governor's stay-at-home order and holding mass worship services that have attracted thousands of attendees.
"Tony spell is in a category by himself," Perkins said of the Life Tabernacle Church pastor who Perkins met with alongside local law enforcement in an attempt to discourage him from holding services. "He doesn't reflect where the vast majority of churches are with that."