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Trump ordered states to open churches. Can he do that?

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President Donald Trump is making a show of siding with religious groups in their clashes with state and local authorities — but his own Justice Department’s actions are exposing the challenges involved in trying to bring the federal government's power to bear on the issue.

The president’s sweeping pronouncement Friday that states must treat all churches and other houses of worship as essential under coronavirus lockdown orders “right now” was met with a now familiar chorus of reaction from critics and legal commentators that he has no authority to issue such a directive.

“The president doesn’t have that power,” said Rachel Laser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution forbids the federal government from strongarming the states. These are reckless exaggerations that are obviously aimed at pandering to his base.”

Some dismissed Trump’s rhetoric as election-year bluster not tethered to reality.

“President Trump’s statement on its face sounds more like political grandstanding than any actual enforcement of laws protecting religious freedom,” said Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The states are accorded great deference and, in fact, the governors are the ones who are in the saddle on most of these judgements calls, notwithstanding the president’s thoughts and desires.”

As is often the case, Trump was long on bravado and short on explanation for how he planned to force his views on state leaders who declined to go along.

“Allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” he insisted, before departing as reporters clamored for answers about the purported federal mandate.

Even his Harvard Law-trained press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, struggled to explain about how the president would implement such an order, dismissing questions about the idea as “hypothetical” and lashing out at reporters for their supposed lack of faith.

Despite the lack of detail, the president’s blunt rhetoric put a new spotlight on the federal government’s most prominent effort to try to police state and local stay-at-home orders: a drive announced last month by Attorney General William Barr to pursue those regulations for potential violations of religious liberty, as well as other infringements on the rights of Americans.

So far, Trump’s promise to come to the rescue of beleaguered congregations has translated into only modest action. The Justice Department has yet to file a lawsuit on behalf of any church, organization or individual over the impact of state or local lockdown orders. Before Friday, its only court action was submitting what amounted to friend-of-the-court briefs in just two pandemic-related suits........

© Politico