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President Donald Trump arrives on the ramp to the stage at a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP/Vucci) President Donald Trump arrives on the ramp to the stage at a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP/Vucci)

President Donald Trump arrives on the ramp to the stage at a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP/Vucci)

Sophie Austin
By Sophie Austin June 23, 2020

Trump wrongly claims Biden wants to prosecute churchgoers

If Your Time is short

  • We found no statements from Joe Biden or other leading Democrats suggesting that they want to prosecute churchgoers, but not people who set churches on fire.

  • Biden and other Democrats have spoken out against the violence and destruction that took place at some Black Lives Matter protests.

At a Tulsa, Okla., rally on June 20, President Donald Trump said that presumptive Democratic rival Joe Biden posed a threat to the rights of churchgoers.

"Joe Biden and the Democrats want to prosecute Americans for going to church, but not for burning a church," he said.

Those claims do not align with statements from Biden or other leading Democrats. 

PolitiFact reached out to Trump’s campaign for comment, but got no response. 

How large-gathering rules affect churches

In efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the spring, Democratic and Republican governors across the country imposed stay-at-home orders and limits on large gatherings, which in some cases restricted the number of people allowed to assemble at churches and other venues.

States are now in varying stages of reopening and loosening limits on public gatherings, though some are still requiring or recommending social-distancing practices.

Some church leaders have tried to defy states’ social-distancing rules, and lawsuits claiming that these regulations threaten First Amendment rights have been filed in states including California, Louisiana and Virginia. 

Such cases have pitted protections for religious freedom against public health concerns. In a 5-4 decision in May, the Supreme Court rejected a California church’s challenge to state rules restricting the number of people who can attend services.

Prosecuting churchgoers

The first part of Trump’s claim, that "Joe Biden and the Democrats want to prosecute Americans for going to church," is not consistent with Biden’s statements.

In a speech in Darby, Pa., on June 17, Biden spoke broadly about the dangers of large gatherings and criticized Trump for not taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously enough. 

"He’s so eager to get back on his campaign, to his campaign rallies, that he’ll put people at risk as everyone’s pointed out, in violation of the CDC guidelines that still warn against large gatherings," Biden said.

But Biden hasn’t said that churchgoers should be prosecuted.

A Pew Research Center study of executive orders in effect on April 24 found that only 10 states prohibited in-person religious gatherings through extensive social-distancing regulations. Three of those states have Republican governors, and six have Democratic governors (Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is a member of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party).

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In Florida, religious service gatherings were exempted from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide stay-at-home order that went into effect in April. The order came after a pastor of a Tampa church was arrested for holding services that defied Hillsborough County public health orders. Prosecutors later dropped the misdemeanor charges against the pastor, citing his cooperation with social-distancing rules.

We couldn’t find examples of Biden or any other leading Democrats saying they wanted to prosecute churchgoers for disobeying social distancing guidelines.

Burning churches

The second part of Trump’s statement claims that Biden and other Democrats don’t want to see people prosecuted for burning churches.

During demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality on the night of May 31, a fire was set in the basement nursery of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is near the White House. Earlier that day, Biden condemned the violence occurring at some Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

"Protesting such brutality is right and necessary. It’s an utterly American response," Biden wrote in a statement on Medium. "But burning down communities and needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. Violence that guts and shutters businesses that serve the community is not."

In a May appearance on ABC News' "This Week," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said there is room for peaceful protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

"I do think that there’s a place for protest at the sign of a knee going into the neck of a person who’s not offering resistance," Pelosi said. "When you have a crowd, you will have those who will disrupt, and that is most unfortunate."

Democratic mayors, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, have also condemned destruction that’s taken place at some demonstrations.

"When you burn down this city, you’re burning down our community," Bottoms said in May after people set cars on fire during protests.

Our ruling

Trump said that Biden and other Democrats were in favor of prosecuting churchgoers, but didn’t want to prosecute people for burning churches. 

We didn’t find any leading Democrats who said they wanted to prosecute churchgoers for disobeying social distancing rules. 

We also didn’t find statements from Biden or other leading Democrats that people who set fires at churches shouldn’t be prosecuted.

In fact, Biden and other leading Democrats spoke out against violence and burnings that took place at some Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

We rate Trump’s claim False. 

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Trump wrongly claims Biden wants to prosecute churchgoers

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