The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has quietly removed some of its warnings about the coronavirus pandemic and added new language about the First Amendment to its guidance on reopening houses of worship.
The agency published guidance last Friday to help religious communities safely reopen for public services with modifications meant to minimize the risk of an outbreak. The guidance came after President Donald Trump pressured state governors to allow religious sites to reopen "right now."
The original CDC guidance published last week encouraged faith community leaders to consider limiting singing, which could exacerbate the spread of Covid-19, according to the previous version posted on the agency's website. The CDC also asked religious leaders to consider holding virtual visits rather than visiting community members in homes or hospitals.
"Consider suspending or at least decreasing use of a choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition," the original guidance read. "The act of singing may contribute to transmission of COVID-19, possibly through emission of aerosols."
The new guidance now says that it's "not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."
"In addition, we note that while many types of gatherings are important for civic and economic well-being, religious worship has particularly profound significance to communities and individuals, including as a right protected by the First Amendment," the new CDC guidance says. "State and local authorities are reminded to take this vital right into account when establishing their own re-opening plans."
Representatives for the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services could not be immediately reached for comment. The White House declined to comment.
At a news briefing last Friday, before the original guidance was published, Trump criticized some governors, adding that it was an "injustice" that some state leaders have allowed "liquor stores and abortion clinics" to stay open while closing houses of worship.
"It's not right," the president said. "I'm calling houses of worship essential."
The White House disagreed with the CDC's original guidance for places of worship and redirected the agency to make them more more lenient, NBC News reported last week.
Trump has previously pushed for religious gatherings to quickly reopen. He said in March that he wanted to see "packed churches" on Easter, April 12. He later backed off the idea as the coronavirus outbreak spread rapidly in some American cities, saying "I just think it would be a beautiful timeline."
CDC research has indicated that places of worship could be particularly high risk for spreading the coronavirus. A CDC study published last week said that health officials tracked a cluster of coronavirus cases in rural Arkansas back to a church pastor and his wife.
"This outbreak highlights the potential for widespread transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, both at group gatherings during church events and within the broader community," the researchers wrote. "Faith-based organizations that are operating or planning to resume in-person operations, including regular services, funerals, or other events, should be aware of the potential for high rates of transmission of SARS-CoV-2."
From the start of the outbreak, governors have placed varying degrees of restrictions on faith-based organizations. Officials in Louisiana, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Delaware, Michigan and elsewhere had previously carved out certain exemptions for religious activities under the statewide restrictions.