Trump Declares Houses of Worship 'Essential,' Calls on Governors to Reopen Them

'Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential,' said the U.S. president, 'I'm correcting this injustice'

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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U.S. President Donald Trump about to talk to the press on the White House lawns before leaving for Camp David, May 15, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump about to talk to the press on the White House lawns before leaving for Camp David, May 15, 2020. Credit: AFP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

U.S. President Donald Trump declared Friday that he is designating houses of worship as places that provide "essential services" during the coronavirus pandemic, and called on governors to allow them to reopen immediately.

"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship – it's not right," Trump said in a brief statement. "So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential."

If governors have questions about reopening churches, synagogues and mosques, Trump added, "they're going to have to call me, but they're not going to be successful in that call."

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, opposed Trump's announcement, saying it "flies in the face of medical and scientific advice."

“The virus does not discriminate between types of gatherings, and neither should the president ... It is completely irresponsible for the president to command a mass reopening of houses of worship," Moline wrote in a statement. "The illness and death that afflicts religious communities who follow the president's dictates will be his responsibility."

The Union for Reform Judaism responded to Trump's calls by saying that "we have known for millennia that houses of worship are essential institutions. While we long to gather in person, we believe that there is no higher value than pikuach nefesh, saving a life. We are entrusted with the holy responsibility of being God’s partners in that work."

"The Reform Jewish Movement will continue to look to the wisdom of medical professionals to guide us on when reopening our synagogues can be done safely in keeping with our values," they added.

On Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that religious ceremonies involving up to 10 people will be permitted across the state with “strict social distancing guidelines,” allowing synagogues to hold prayer quorums ahead of the Shavuot holiday. He warned that although religious services can be a source of comfort, they must be conducted safely.

“We know from New Rochelle, Westchester – the first hot spot - that religious ceremonies can be very dangerous,” Cuomo added, referring to the Young Israel Synagogue of New Rochelle, believed to have been an early infection epicenter after New York’s first coronavirus patient emerged from that community in March. 

“The last thing we want to do is have a religious ceremony that winds up having more people infected,” he said. 

On Tuesday, New York Police shut down a Yeshiva in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn for operating in defiance of social distancing guidelines and lockdown rules during the coronavirus crisis. Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the school, Nitra Yeshiva, was “conducting classes with as many as 70 children.” 

In March, an analysis of the Israeli Health Ministry's coronavirus data showed that over 30 percent of Israelis infected with the virus in public spaces had visited synagogues and yeshivas, or were exposed to the virus there, more than in clinics or hospitals.