Albany Law professor says Trump can't deem houses of worship essential

Emily Burkhard
Updated: May 22, 2020 11:23 PM
Created: May 22, 2020 11:22 PM

During a press briefing Friday, President Trump said houses of worship are essential and should be allowed to re-open immediately. But, a local law expert said he doesn't have the power to do that.

Trump took issue with governors deeming locations like liquor stores and abortion clinics essential while leaving houses of worship off those lists.

"I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now,” Trump said.

Trump said governors who disagree can take it up with him directly.

"If there's any question it'll have to call me but they're not going to be successful in that call,” Trump said.

The White House said ultimately they will "leave it to faith communities to reopen” with guidance from the CDC on how to clean facilities and promote social distancing.

NewsChannel 13 reached out to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany to see if this changes any of their plans to re-open.

A spokesperson issued this statement:

“We are glad to hear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the resumption of church gatherings on a limited basis. Our people are hungry for a return to their parish communities and this is a first step. Although the Diocese is not yet ready to open parishes for Sunday worship, we do believe this easing of restrictions will allow for baptisms, funerals and weddings to proceed, all while respecting social distancing requirements. The Diocese is moving forward with caution to ensure the safety of our parishioners and has asked parishes to submit reopening plans. Once we are confident that we are in a position to reopen in a safe and responsible manner, we will announce a date for the resumption of regular Masses.”

NewsChannel 13 asked law professional if Trump even has the power to override a state's decision under the constitution.

Albany Law School professor Dr. Vincent Bonventre said he doesn't.

"This executive order or whatever he was doing is not to be taken seriously,” Bonventre said.

Bonventre said the 14th amendment actually gives the power to enforce exercise of religious freedom within states to Congress. He said there's also precedent for limiting those freedoms.

If exercising free speech, press or religion leads to clear and present danger to the public, they can and have been restricted.

"None of the rights, whether it's religious liberty or anything else in this country, none of them are absolute,” Bonventre said. “And in this case with this pandemic sorry, but religious liberty is not absolute and the governors in the states can enforce protections."

Conversely, Bonventre said if states could be infringing or interfering with first amendment rights by restricting religious practices for an excessive period of time.

"I don’t think that that would be valid because I don’t think that’s necessary," Bonventre said. "If they are social distancing, if there are masks, if there are other precautions like sanitizing the entire church or the mosque or the synagogue."

Bonventre said down the road he's expecting to see lawsuits involving mandated coronavirus vaccines, that's once one is developed and widely available.

Stay tuned to NewsChannel 13 for updates on this story.

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