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Reopening churches ‘dangerous and foolish,’ Lightfoot tells Trump

At a Friday press conference announcing plans to “cautiously reopen” parts of Chicago, Lightfoot said people have to recognize that “virtually everything [Trump] says has a political undertone and basis for it.”

Willie Wilson worships with members of Philadelphia Romanian Church during a service on May 17, 2020. The church is one of many churches across Chicago that defied Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which limits in-worship services to 10 people.
Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times.

A Sunday service showdown could be looming across the state this weekend.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot slammed President Donald Trump’s calls on Friday for churches and other houses of worship to reopen, while Gov. J.B. Pritzker — who has managed to fend off a series of legal challenges against his stay-at-home order — said Illinois will “continue to operate on the basis of science and data.”

Lightfoot was more pointed in her criticism of Trump, who, during a hastily arranged White House press conference, said he’d identified churches, synagogues and mosques as “essential places that provide essential services” — and that he would “override” governors who don’t abide by his request to open them.

The mayor called those remarks the latest in a long list of “dangerous and foolish” things the president has said.

“The faith leaders that I’ve talked to across the city recognize that they have to be smart about this, they’re worried about their parishioners, and we get that,” Lightfoot said during a news conference announcing plans to “cautiously reopen” sectors of the city economy.

“We are not going to rush to do something, so he can fulfill a campaign promise that sets people’s lives at risk. … He’s said so many dangerous and foolish things — add this to the list,” she said.

‘Creative’ ways to worship

While it’s not clear what authority Trump has to override Pritzker’s order — which limits religious gatherings to 10 people among other social distancing guidelines — Pritzker said he’s “as anxious as anybody to make sure that our churches or mosques or synagogues open back to where they were before COVID-19 came along.

“We’re gradually moving in that direction, but there’s no doubt, the most important thing is we do not want parishioners to get ill because their faith leaders bring them together,” Pritzker said from Springfield, during his latest coronavirus briefing.

“We hope that faith leaders will continue to do — as the vast majority of them have done — which is to worship sometimes online, sometimes in other capacities as we’ve talked about outdoor and driving,” Pritzker said.

Those outdoor services will be welcomed in the third phase of his reopening plan set to take effect May 29, Pritzker said, and he promised “to collaborate with faith leaders to ensure that they can hold services in safe and creative ways that allow for worship, while protecting their congregants.”

Churches and other religious institutions are already considered “essential” in Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which so far has survived a series of legal challenges on religious grounds. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found last weekend that the order “does not discriminate against religious activities.”

That still hasn’t stopped a handful of Chicago-area churches from flouting the order altogether and holding services the past two weekends.

Former mayoral candidate and Chicago businessman Willie Wilson has been a vocal leader of that religious defiance, paying the $500 fines given to three Chicago churches that held services last Sunday. Those include Philadelphia Romanian Church of God in Uptown, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Albany Park and Metro Praise International Church in Belmont Cragin.

‘It’s not right,’ Trump says

And Trump, who has been pushing for the economy to reopen even as the virus continues to spread, on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities, and took issue with other businesses and services that have been allowed to continue to operate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously prepared a draft of reopening guidelines for churches and other houses of worship weeks ago that included measures like maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.

But that guidance had been delayed for more than a month by the administration until Trump abruptly reversed course Thursday.

“I said, ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said at a Ford plant repurposed to make ventilators in Michigan. “We’ve got to get our churches open.”

It is unclear what the final guidelines will say, but public health agencies have generally advised people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and encouraged Americans to remain 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from others when possible.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, Trump said. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential. ... These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united.”

Contributing: Associated Press