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Some Religious Leaders Vow To Have In-Person Services Despite Government Orders


A fight has broken out over when and how houses of worship should begin holding in-person services again. And today, President Trump joined the fight himself.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now. If there's any question, they're going to have to call me. But they're not going to be successful in that call.

CHANG: Local and state authorities across the country had ordered churches to limit or suspend services in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And here with more on all of this is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Hey, Tom.


CHANG: So the president said today that governors are basically treating churches differently from other public places, like restaurants, for example. Can we just talk about the reasons for that? What is different about churches?

GJELTEN: Well, like restaurants, church - people in church gather in tight spaces. But in addition to that, people in church sing, which experts say is an especially effective way to spread the virus. They handle hymnals, they handle offering plates that participate in communion. The Centers for Disease Control actually drew up guidelines about a month ago spelling out these dangers. They never released them officially, but just this week the CDC put out a report on an outbreak at a church in Arkansas that infected 34 out of 92 people attending a service there. So that's the background, Ailsa.

CHANG: Wow. OK, then where has the resistance to church closings been coming from?

GJELTEN: Two governors in particular have been the focus. Gavin Newsom right there in California has suspended in-person services entirely. And Tim Walz in Minnesota has said churches can gather no more than 10 people at a time. In response to that order, the leader of Minnesota's Catholics, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, announced yesterday that churches under his authority will defy the governor's directive.


BERNARD HEBDA: We will resume holding in-person masses and services in a limited capacity beginning on Tuesday, May 26, whether or not the governor has amended his executive order.

CHANG: OK. Well, the Trump administration went along with these state orders for a while. But then, the way I understand it, in the last few weeks, didn't it start supporting the reopening of churches?

GJELTEN: That's right, Ailsa. For example, yesterday Attorney General William Barr was on a call with pastors around the country, some of whom said they wanted to reopen now. Among them was Jack Hibbs from Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, Calif.


JACK HIBBS: Our question to you is, do we have the support of this administration and the Department of Justice, even in states that are hostile toward reopening?

WILLIAM BARR: Absolutely. And, in fact, this was the subject of the meeting that I just came from.

GJELTEN: And, Ailsa, Barr, on that call, actually told the pastors that, in his opinion, the governors who take a hard line against reopening are showing animus toward religion. And then President Trump was on the call, as well. He took a similar line blaming Democrat governors. And then today, he came out and declared that houses of worship are essential and have to open.

CHANG: Huh. OK. Well, do you have any indication at this point of how many churches will reopen now that the president is basically giving everyone a green light?

GJELTEN: Some will. Some that maybe have been reluctant will be encouraged now to proceed. And I can't see that governors or local authorities will try to arrest anyone who defies them in this way. But I'd expect a lot of churches will remain closed on their own. I spoke, for example, with Peter Marty, who is the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century Magazine. He said politics should not be a factor here, but rather, what's wisest and best for church members.

PETER MARTY: Christian witness - it's all about generous behavior towards the other, and especially the vulnerable other.

GJELTEN: There you go.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Thank you, Tom.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.