President Donald Trump on Friday declared houses of worship “essential” and called on governors to let them reopen this weekend, drawing mixed reactions from religious leaders in Spokane and across the country.
Trump threatened to “override” governors who defy him, but it was unclear what authority he has to do so. Governors of both parties maintained the decision to lift coronavirus restrictions, including church closures, rests with them.
Churches, mosques and synagogues in Idaho have been allowed to reopen. In Spokane County, some businesses are allowed to reopen under Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, but houses of worship may not.
“While we have read the president’s comments, there’s no order and we think he understands at this point that he can’t dictate what states can or cannot open,” Inslee’s office said in a statement Friday, adding that state officials are communicating with faith leaders about plans to reopen.
The Rev. Todd Eklof, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, said members of his congregation are eager to attend in-person services again, but they’re leery of catching or spreading the virus and will continue participating in online services.
“We’re anxious to get back together, but we’re not so anxious that we’re going to go just because President Trump gives an impotent order to do so,” Eklof said.
During a news conference Friday, Trump called it an “injustice” that some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics essential but not churches.
Eklof said that’s a bad comparison because some churches hold hundreds or even thousands of people in close proximity.
“Churches are very different,” he said. “They are a breeding ground for the passage of illnesses because not only are people in a closed setting and they’re sitting close to each other, but they’re very friendly, and they like to shake hands, and they like to hug, and they like to speak face to face.”
Dustin Jones, a spokesman for the Upper Columbia Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which covers Washington, Oregon and Idaho, said congregants should essentially disregard Trump’s remarks.
“In light of those statements, we are advising our churches to continue to abide by the mandates of their state and local governments,” Jones said.
When the time comes to reopen, Jones said Adventist churches will take precautions to prevent the virus from spreading.
“We’ve prepared guidelines on how to wipe down pews and handles … and, at this point, we’re advising not to have children’s classes,” Jones said.
Meanwhile in a Facebook video, Ken Peters, the pastor at Covenant Church in Spokane Valley, praised Trump’s remarks and suggested the president had “trumped” Inslee’s coronavirus restrictions.
Peters also leads boisterous anti-abortion protests outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Spokane. It wasn’t immediately clear whether his congregation planned to gather in person this weekend.
“Who’s the rebel now? Who are you going to submit to now?” Peters said in the video. “Listen, the church should not have waited for President Trump to say this, to give us the permission, because we have the Scripture and we have the Constitution.”
Mitchell Palmquist, a spokesman for Spokane’s Catholic diocese, said bishops across the state have presented a proposal for reopening local churches to Inslee’s office, “and we’re hoping to get their endorsement.”
Palmquist said the diocese was aiming to release an update on that plan early next week.
The Rev. Walter Kendricks, of Morning Star Baptist Church, said he and some other local pastors plan to reopen their churches on the first Sunday in June, regardless of any state or local restrictions.
“People are clamoring. They really want to get back to service, so with extreme caution and with all protocols in place, we plan on reopening,” Kendricks said.
Congregants, he said, will be urged to use common sense.
“If you’re sick, stay at home. If you don’t feel well, stay at home,” he said. “When you come into the sanctuary, make sure your hands are clean. We won’t be hugging and shaking hands and all that good stuff. We will observe proper distancing to the degree that we can.”
The Associated Press and Daisy Zavala contributed to this story.
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