Chicago Tribune |JOHN BYRNE, BILL RUTHHART, ROBERT MCCOPPIN and DEANESE WILLIAMS-HARRIS | May 22, 2020
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday deemed President Donald Trump’s call for the reopening of churches across the country this weekend “dangerous and foolish,” saying he’s “pandering to a base” while running for reelection and has no power to override local officials’ steps to stop people from congregating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lightfoot’s comments came after Trump on Friday said churches are essential and governors should open them this weekend.
“I think we have to realize that virtually everything he says has a political undertone and basis for it,” Lightfoot said. “Look, we are working with our faith community, just like we’re working with businesses to set up very specific guidelines to help them to be able to reopen safely.”
The mayor noted Trump has had to “walk back” various proclamations he has made during the coronavirus crisis or seen his assertions “get undercut by people who are wiser than him on some of these issues.”
“He has said so many dangerous and foolish things. Add this to the list,” Lightfoot said.
Still, with some Chicago churches already holding services last weekend in spite of a statewide order that they not do so, it remains to be seen whether the president’s stance prompts more faith leaders and their congregations to flout Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order this weekend.
Lightfoot in recent days has toughened her stance against churches in Chicago hosting religious services.
After Lightfoot said for weeks that she wanted to educate people about the dangers of congregating in churches rather than taking more punitive steps, Chicago police fined three houses of worship $500 each after they held services last weekend.
Pritzker on Friday wasn’t as strident as Lightfoot in his rejection of the president’s idea, but he did not seem inclined to follow Trump’s call for churches to be allowed to resume services.
“We’re going to continue to operate on the basis of science and data,” Pritzker said. “I’m 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. We hope that faith leaders will continued to do what the vast majority have done, which is to worship sometimes online, sometimes in other capacities, as we’ve talked about outdoor and drive-in.”
At a hastily arranged Friday news conference at the White House, Trump said it’s time to get back to worshipping inside.
“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said. If governors don’t abide by his request, Trump said he’ll override them.
The president took issue with other types of businesses being allowed to continue to operate during the virus outbreak.
“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,” he said.
Locally, some churches are already chafing at the rules.
Two Romanian churches in the Chicago area filed opening briefs in court Friday in their appeal of a decision on a federal lawsuit they filed challenging the state stay-at-home order.
Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Albany Park and Logos Baptist Ministries in Niles challenged Pritzker’s executive order limiting worship services to no more than 10 people, noting there are no such restrictions on businesses deemed “essential” such as liquor stores, marijuana shops and big box stores.
A judge earlier this month rejected a bid by the churches to hold services, blasting the request for a preliminary injunction as “both ill-founded and selfish.”
Liberty Counsel, which represents the churches, criticized “bullying tactics” by Lightfoot, including parking bans and towing outside churches, and sending letters to area residents blaming the churches for the measures.
“Many people died for our freedom to keep us from a communist society,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a news release. “Now we are defending those pastors and churchgoers who came from communist Romania so they may continue to enjoy that priceless freedom for which so many fought and died, and to pass it on to future generations.”
Chicago businessman and former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson, who has clashed with Lightfoot about his offers to donate and sell protective masks in the city during the coronavirus outbreak, applauded Trump on Friday for “protecting the First Amendment rights of all citizens” by arguing churches are essential. “I thank God for placing this important issue on the heart of President Trump,” Wilson said in a statement.
But others are hewing to the local rules. Pastor Theodore Matthews of Empowerment Church in Bellwood said Friday after Trump’s announcement that his church will take a “phased-in approach” to reopening the church for worship.
“We are leaning more toward what the governor and science believes about the pandemic,” Matthews said. “It is a very stressful time for all of us. We are all worried about our families and personal health, so the last thing we want is a stressful worship when we open. We want people to feel safe.”
Lightfoot said Trump can’t rescind in-person rules set by local officials for houses of worship.