White House blocks CDC guidance for reopening churches to avoid alienating religious leaders: report

"We've been muzzled," a CDC official complained of the politics, adding that "we would have saved lives and money"

By Igor Derysh

Deputy Politics Editor

Published May 21, 2020 1:49PM (EDT)

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Mike Pence, U.S. Vice President, as he takes the podium before speaking during a Keep America Great rally on July 17, 2019 in Greenville, North Carolina. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Mike Pence, U.S. Vice President, as he takes the podium before speaking during a Keep America Great rally on July 17, 2019 in Greenville, North Carolina. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) quietly released detailed reopening guidelines over the weekend amid fears that the guidance had been "shelved" by the White House. However, the published document omitted key guidance, including a detailed section related to religious services.

The CDC uploaded the 60-page document without any announcement after the Associated Press reported that the guidelines had been blocked and watered down by the White House. The new document does not include key sections that appeared in a leaked 63-page draft version of the report obtained by the outlet.  

The new guidelines no longer have a section covering "communities of health" and "also tones down the guidance in several instances," The New York Times reported. The news came as CDC officials expressed concerns that they had been sidelined as the administration prioritized politics over science.

"We've been muzzled," a CDC official told CNN, adding that "we would have saved lives and money" if the administration had listened to the agency's advice.

There are no plans to issue guidance for religious institutions after the White House and members of the coronavirus task force argued that they were too restrictive and might "alienate" religious leaders, three administration officials told The Washington Post.

The decision came as Vice President Mike Pence, who has extensive ties to religious leaders, made a series of private calls asking for their support for the White House's reopening plan.

The draft CDC guidance recommended that religious institutions limit sharing prayer books and other materials, consider using stationary collection boxes and consider suspending choirs during services. After discussions about scaling back the recommendations, the guidance was scrapped entirely, an official told The Post.

Asked about the religious guidelines on Wednesday, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said "we are working on those" and vowed they would be available "soon."

President Donald Trump and "all Americans want to see their churches safely open again. Not only is it good for the community, it's their right under the Constitution to worship freely without government intrusion," White House spokesman Judd Deere told The Post. "The Trump administration will always protect that right and continue to partner with states to ensure congregations are properly protected as restrictions are responsibly eased."

Not only did the White House reportedly block the federal guidelines but the Trump administration has also targeted state restrictions on churches. The Department of Justice vowed "action" last month against local government regulations affecting religious services and indeed intervened in a Mississippi case after a mayor restricted drive-in Easter services.

On Tuesday, five Justice Department lawyers, including Eric Dreiband, who heads the department's civil rights division, said in a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom that the state's restrictions might violate religious rights.

Unlike worshipers, California deemed certain workers essential "regardless of whether the product they are selling and shipping are life-preserving products or not," Dreiband said in the letter. "This facially discriminates against religious exercise."

The letter also took issue with the state planning to reopen restaurants, offices and malls in the second phase of their reopening but delaying church reopenings until the third phase.

"The Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in stage two of the reopening plan," Dreiband said. "Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights."

The warning came as several churches which were allowed to reopen in Southern states closed back down after leaders and members tested positive for the coronavirus. The CDC released a report Tuesday detailing an outbreak at an Arkansas church which infected at least 34 of 92 attendees at church events — three of whom died — and was linked to 26 additional infections outside of the church.

The lack of detailed guidance for churches puts worshipers at risk, especially since many Americans who attend services tend to be older, Tara Smith, a Kent State epidemiologist who is helping religious institutions navigate reopening, told The Post.

"You're talking about that group that is really vulnerable to this virus, and those are the ones you don't have guidelines for and that you need to protect," she said. ". . . You think that would be the responsibility of the government. Churches could choose what to implement . . . It just is really frustrating to me that these have not been released."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's Deputy News and Politics Editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Cdc Coronavirus Covid-19 Donald Trump Kellyanne Conway Mike Pence Politics Religion William Barr