President Donald Trump’s administration stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from recommending people attend church remotely in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to emails made public on April 29.
The CDC planned to include the recommendations in guidance for faith communities released in May 2020, according to an email from May Davis Mailman, a White House lawyer.
Mailman wrote (pdf) that edits the White House made “removes all of the tele-church suggestions” from the guidance before it was released to the public.
The missive was one of several made public by the House Select Subcommittee for the Coronavirus Crisis.
The guidance did not include advice for attending church remotely, though they did say churches should “consider suspending or at least decreasing use” of singing during services, a line that was removed after about 24 hours.
In another email, Paul Ray, the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the time, told (pdf) colleagues that the CDC’s draft guidance “includes a significant amount of new content, much of which seems to raise religious liberty concerns.”
Ray suggested edits and said the guidance should only be published if the CDC agreed to delete “the offensive passages.”
Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, thanked Ray, saying he was “holding firm against the newest round of mission creep.”
The group also mentioned possible activity from Trump regarding the church guidance. That day, Trump in a briefing said that houses of worship were “essential places that provide essential services” and said they should be allowed to reopen.
The declaration came as governors across the country imposed harsh lockdowns, with some forcing the closure of so-called non-essential establishments.
After the guidance was published, Dr. Jay Butler, a CDC official, wrote to colleagues to tell them that he was “very troubled” because “there will people who will get sick and perhaps die because of what we were forced to do.”
“Our team has done the good work, only to have it compromised,” he said in the email, which was released by the House panel.
Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, former editor-in-chief of the CDC’s quasi-journal, told Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) during a panel hearing on Friday that in her 20 years at the agency, she never witnessed political officials change public health guidance before it was published due to it being offensive to them.
“When scientific reports did not align with their political message, Trump administration officials tried to alter their findings, delay their release, or suppress them entirely,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the panel’s chairman, said during the hearing, which also included testimony from the Government Accountability Office officials on observed political interference at the CDC and other agencies.
Not everybody saw what transpired the same way, though.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the top Republican on the panel, decried how the CDC during the Biden administration allowed teachers’ unions to edit guidance on reopening schools before it they were opened, adding: “It is interesting to note that Democrat examples that we’ve seen regarding political interference by the Trump administration involve things like looking to the First Amendment to protect free speech in our churches. Yes. That was something the administration looked at, because even during a pandemic, the Bill of Rights is not discarded.”
Ray, the former White House official, told The Epoch Times in an email that the First Amendment guarantees Americans’ freedom to worship.
“CDC has been perfectly clear that there are multiple ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Each faith tradition—not the federal government—is best situated to understand the demands of its own beliefs and therefore to choose, among the multiple effective means of preventing the virus’s spread, those means that best comport with its beliefs. The United States government has no business putting pressure on religious believers to choose methods of protection that clash with their beliefs over other methods that do not. The edits proposed to this document were designed to keep Americans safe while respecting their right to worship as they believe they should,” he said.
Mailman, the ex-White House lawyer, told The Epoch Times that the administration shutting down churches and other religious facilities triggered concerns over constitutional rights.
The CDC primarily issues non-binding guidance, but during the pandemic that guidance has been adopted widely in the United States, particularly in 2020, and especially in Democrat-run states and municipalities.
Mailman mentioned in the email how she personally would have preferred drive-through services if she was “old and vulnerable,” a portion highlighted by Democrats on the panel.
But she said that comment falls in line with the view that people can choose what to do, including during a pandemic.
“If an individual felt that they wanted to practice like that, if the church felt that they wanted to practice like that, they absolutely should be allowed to, especially if the congregation wants it,” Mailman said. “But there’s a huge difference between what the congregation wants and what the government tells someone what they have to do or should do.”