President Donald Trump on Friday demanded that governors reopen churches, synagogues and mosques "right now," and threatened to "override" state leaders' restrictions if they do not do so by the weekend.
The surprise announcement marked the president's latest attempt to ramp up the political stakes surrounding the country's coronavirus recovery efforts. He is facing a tough reelection fight against apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Trump said it was an "injustice" that some state leaders have allowed "liquor stores and abortion clinics" to stay open amid the Covid-19 pandemic while closing houses of worship.
"It's not right," Trump said. "I'm calling houses of worship essential."
"If there's any question, they're going to have to call me, but they're not going to be successful in that call," Trump said of state leaders.
"The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend," Trump said.
"If they don't do it, I will override the governors."
But it's far from clear if Trump has the authority to do so.
States, not the federal government, have imposed harsh restrictions on residents and businesses to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The White House has only released guidelines for states and regional leaders to follow as they combat the disease.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, when asked what authority allows Trump to override a governor's rules, did not provide a specific provision.
Instead, she said, "the president will strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen – and boy, it's interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed."
A reporter in the room quickly objected to that characterization, saying that he is a churchgoer and would like to attend services again but questions remain about whether places of worship are being asked to reopen too quickly.
The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
With the U.S. economy straining under the social distancing rules, Trump has loudly called on the country to begin the reopening process. All 50 states have now begun some level of reopening even as cases reportedly continue to rise in some parts of the country.
More than 1.58 million cases and at least 95,052 deaths from the coronavirus have been confirmed in the U.S. so far, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The White House had recently fought with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make its forthcoming guidelines for reopening areas of worship more lenient, NBC News reported Thursday.
Trump has previously pushed for religious gatherings to restart: He said in March that he wanted to see "packed churches" on Easter, April 12. He later backed off the idea, saying "I just think it would be a beautiful timeline."
At a veterans event earlier Friday, Trump said that he would soon issue a "very strong recommendation" on reopening churches. "We want our churches open, we want our places of faith, synagogues, we want them open," the president said then.
"That's going to start happening. I consider them essential, and that's one of the things we are saying," Trump said.
Numerous states – including New York, the epicenter of the crisis in the U.S. – have already relaxed some social distancing rules for religious gatherings.
On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued updated guidance allowing church services of up to 10 people in areas where restrictions are still in place and ordering participants to wear masks. Cuomo encouraged churches to host drive-in services and ceremonies in parking lots.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also cracked down on religious ceremonies with large gatherings. In late April, de Blasio said an unapproved funeral for an ultra-Orthodox rabbi that drew thousands of mourners in Brooklyn "was absolutely unacceptable" and warned the New York Police Department would take a "zero tolerance" policy on large gatherings.
-- CNBC's Dan Mangan contributed to this report.