Washington DC, US
AP

After refusing for weeks to release reopening guidance for churches, the Trump administration on Thursday abruptly changed course - with the President saying he had instructed health officials to put the advice out.

While visiting Michigan, President Donald Trump said he had discussed the issue with leadership at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I said ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said at a Ford Motor Co plant repurposed to make ventilators in Ypsilanti Township. “And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We got to get our churches open.”

Donald Trump Detroit

President Donald Trump gives thumbs up after stepping off Air Force One as he arrives at Detroit Metro Airport, behind him are Kurt Heise, left, Supervisor of Plymouth Township, Michigan, and Speaker Lee Chatfield, of the Michigan House of Representatives, on 21st May in Detroit. PICTURE: AP Photo/Alex Brandon.

The church guidance is coming out “hopefully soon", CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said Thursday afternoon. A senior administration official said it was expected to be released Friday.

MISSISSIPPI GOVERNOR CONDEMNS CHURCH FIRE

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves on Thursday condemned a church fire that's being investigated as an arson. First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs burned on Wednesday, about a month after it filed a lawsuit challenging city restrictions on gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

News outlets reported that investigators from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office found graffiti in the church parking lot that read: “Bet you stay home now you hypokrites.”

The Republican governor said during a news conference in Jackson that the fire and the message make him “heartbroken” and “furious.”

“This is not who we are as a people,” Reeves said. “This is not who we are as a state.”

Pastor Jerry Waldrop said he and other church leaders have no idea who might have set the fire or left the graffiti.

“No enemies that we know of," Waldrop said. "We don’t know anyone that we even think could be capable of doing something like this.”

The church sued the city of Holly Springs in April, alleging police officers had disrupted a church Bible study and Easter service. Holly Springs City Attorney Shirley Byers said nearly 40 worshipers inside the church building were not practicing social distancing on 10th April when a violation citation was issued for the church.

Churchgoers practiced social distancing while indoors and only held indoor services when bad weather would not allow them to gather outside, the lawsuit said. Byers said the city amended its local order in late April to allow for drive-thru church services. 

The governor's safer-at-home order, which is set to expire Monday, allows churches to operate as essential businesses, but it limits the size of indoor gatherings. The Republican governor has also asked pastors to follow public health recommendations on social distancing and other practices to mitigate the spread of the virus. Reeves issued guidelines this week for places of worship to restart services inside their buildings.

Authorities are offering a reward for tips on the arson investigation.

AP

More than a month ago, the CDC sent the Trump administration documents the agency had drafted with specific steps different types of organisations could follow as they gradually reopened. The advice was for seven types of organisations, including schools, restaurants and religious facilities. 

Those drafts included detailed information for churches wanting to restart in-person services, with suggestions including maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.

The Trump administration initially shelved all the documents, but they were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organisations. Some health leaders criticised the move, saying organisations need as much science-based guidance as possible as they try to reopen without sparking new outbreaks.

Guidance for the six other types of organisations was released last week and this week, but administration officials had said none would be forthcoming for houses of worship.

Last week, a Trump administration official speaking on condition of anonymity said there were concerns about the propriety of the government making specific dictates to places of worship. And Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, argued that “protections against religious discrimination aren’t suspended during an emergency".

But on Thursday, Trump painted a different picture, suggesting he had prodded CDC to put out guidance to help churches reopen.

“We’ve got to open our churches. People want to go in,” he said.

Two senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said administration officials did have concerns on religious freedom but those were resolved. They did not elaborate about how they were resolved, but they noted the health advisories are not requirements.

After the AP reported on the draft guidance for faith organisations, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, praised the CDC’s advice as “informative without being heavy-handed". But as the guidance was withheld, churches in several states proceeded with plans for reopening while many others remain closed.

Maggie Siddiqi, director of the faith initiative at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the delay reflected political concerns within the administration that make for a “confusing and problematic” posture. Siddiqi's group is recommending that no houses of worship reopen.