Trump evangelical advisers exposed to COVID-19 flout CDC guidelines, preach in public

A number of high-profile Christian leaders attended recent Washington, D.C., events with people who have since tested positive for COVID-19. Some have chosen to quarantine out of precaution, but others continue to travel and even to preach in front of their congregations.

In this Sept. 26, 2020, photo, President Donald Trump, center, stands with Judge Amy Coney Barrett as they arrive for a news conference to announce Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — At least two faith leaders, including one of President Donald Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisers, have tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a White House Rose Garden ceremony and a separate evangelical gathering in Washington, D.C.

University of Notre Dame President the Rev. John I. Jenkins, who was present at the Rose Garden event, announced his positive test on Friday (Oct. 2) and is quarantining.

Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, also in attendance at the Rose Garden ceremony, confirmed Monday that he tested positive for COVID-19. Laurie said in a video that he had been quarantining since Friday, when he received the diagnosis.

A number of other high-profile Christian leaders were also at one or both events. Some have since chosen to quarantine out of precaution, but others continue to travel and even to preach in front of their congregations.

The Sept. 26 ceremony, announcing Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, was convened at the White House Rose Garden, where attendees sat close together, few wore masks and many were seen shaking hands when the event concluded.

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With Laurie’s diagnosis, at least nine people from the Rose Garden ceremony, including Trump, have since tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

And many faith leaders were photographed sitting near or next to them throughout the event. At any given time, most were within feet of Jenkins, Laurie, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former White House aide Kellyanne Conway and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany — all of whom have since tested positive.

The Rev. Paul Scalia, a priest at St. James Catholic Church in Falls Church, Virginia, and the son of Justice Antonin Scalia, announced to his church on Sunday that he tested negative over the weekend but that he would quarantine “at the recommendation of my doctor and per CDC guidelines.” Scalia sat in the same row and three seats down from Conway at the Rose Garden event.

Paul Browne, vice president for communications at Notre Dame, told Religion News Service that 10 faculty members — as opposed to 18, as had been previously reported — from the school attended the Rose Garden event. All have been tested, but Browne said the school does not reveal their identity or the results of their tests as a matter of policy — with the exception of Jenkins.

Browne also stressed the importance of quarantine.

“Anyone who tests positive at Notre Dame is isolated and anyone in close contact with someone who tests positive is quarantined,” he said.

Meanwhile, many other faith leaders who attended the event say they have since tested negative for the virus, but not all are adhering to those Centers for Disease Control guidelines, which recommend quarantining for 14 days after spending an extended period of time (more than 15 minutes) in close proximity (within 6 feet) to someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

Even with a negative test, the CDC still recommends a person exposed to COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks after last known exposure to the virus, since symptoms may take anywhere from two to 14 days to appear.

Note for the above interactive image: Green check marks are to indicate a negative test result. However, people infected with COVID-19 can take up to 14 days to develop symptoms. Also, while the faith leaders shown who tested positive have quarantined, many others have yet to do so, despite CDC guidelines.

Indeed, many of the pastors in attendance preached to in-person congregations Sunday.

Laurie, who sat diagonally in front of Christie during the Rose Garden event, preached during Harvest Christian Fellowship’s “Harvest at Home” online services Sunday. His message had been filmed Wednesday morning, before his diagnosis, according to a spokesperson for Laurie.

Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, sat directly in front of Christie and next to Laurie at the Rose Garden event. Graham opened his service on Sunday by praying for the president, who was hospitalized on Friday after experiencing complications from his own COVID-19 infection, and the first lady, who also tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Graham — speaking at one of Prestonwood’s worship centers in Texas, which are open with no restrictions — then assured his congregation that “I am ridiculously healthy, let’s just put it that way. I’m not sick. I’m fine.

“I exercised every day this week … and flew to Atlanta to speak with the vice president on Wednesday. I worked every day, preaching three times this weekend, so I don’t have COVID. Let’s just put it that way. I’m grateful for that, and we’re grateful for God’s protection always,” he said.

Feeling healthy does not discount the potential for spreading the coronavirus, however, given evidence that it can be transmitted to others even by those who are asymptomatic.

Graham then preached a message titled “Socialism: A Clear and Present Danger.”

He did not mention being tested for COVID-19, but a spokesperson for Graham told RNS Tuesday that the pastor has consulted his doctor about his activities and been tested twice. Both tests have come back negative, though it is unclear when Graham was tested.

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Skip Heitzig, pastor of Calvary Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sat in the row behind Jenkins during the Rose Garden event. A representative for Heitzig’s church told RNS that Heitzig “feels great” but did get a COVID-19 test early Saturday morning.

Heitzig’s team emailed RNS late Monday evening to say that the pastor received a negative result from the test. But a Monday night result would mean he was still awaiting test results when he began preaching Sunday morning. He delivered his sermon in a closed studio but acknowledged that other people were there, and attendees could be heard clapping as he spoke.

RNS has learned that Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council who sat down the row from Heitzig closer to Christie, has not had a COVID-19 test since the event but was already infected by the coronavirus earlier this year. He has also taken an antibody test that came back positive.

Perkins revealed the previous infection in a post on the FRC Action website Monday evening.

“Those of us who have the antibodies need to be out and about, because we become part of the process that stops the spread,” he wrote.

However, Perkins’ assessment does not match recommendations put forth by health experts at the CDC, which point to uncertainties regarding whether people who test positive for COVID-19 can be reinfected or what kind of protection antibodies provide.

“Having antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 may provide protection from getting infected with the virus again,” reads a statement on the CDC website. “But even if it does, we do not know how much protection the antibodies may provide or how long this protection may last.”

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, center, speaks with President Donald Trump at left, as he announces Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House, on Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Paula White, head of the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative and often regarded as Trump’s closest religious adviser, sat three seats down from Jenkins at the Rose Garden event. She preached in front of the Florida-based City of Destiny congregation on Sunday — where people were spaced apart, and many wore masks — and said she had been tested three times the previous week. All, she said, came back negative.

She called on those present to pray for “supernatural healing” for Trump and others suffering from COVID-19.

Jentezen Franklin, pastor of Free Chapel in Gainesville, Georgia, who sat diagonally behind Jenkins in the Rose Garden, preached to his congregation on Sunday as well. He prayed for healing for the president and the first lady but did not mention during his introduction whether he had been tested for the novel coronavirus.

Before Sunday’s services, Franklin posted a video on Twitter sharing he had tested negative for COVID-19. He said he’d gotten the test “out of an abundance of caution” because he had met with and prayed for the president before the event in the Rose Garden.

He encouraged people to keep praying for the president and all who have “the real disease, the very deadly disease of COVID-19.”

Liberty University acting President Jerry Prevo sat next to Jentezen Franklin during the event. A representative for the university said Prevo tested negative for the virus on Friday morning. Prevo tweeted on Saturday images of himself attending a Liberty football game with other people in what appeared to be a closed room.

“Loved cheering (Liberty football) onto another win today with this beautiful lady,” he tweeted, along with images of himself standing next to other people and speaking. “We had a great time getting to know some LU students, staff, and faculty at the game. Congratulations to (Coach Hugh Freeze) and the Flames for their 3-0 record. Go Flames!”

Bishop Harry Jackson, who leads Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, appeared to sit on the end of the row behind Jenkins and directly across the aisle from Kayleigh McEnany. He preached to an empty church on Sunday. A representative of Jackson’s church left a message with RNS Tuesday saying that the Maryland pastor had been tested the day before and was negative for COVID-19.

Pastor Robert Morris, who appeared to be sitting next to Jentezen Franklin at the Rose Garden event, spoke Sunday to his Dallas-based Gateway Church. The congregation gathered in person with some restrictions to celebrate Gateway’s 20th year, a service that included worship music led by Christian musicians Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes.

Morris posted a photo of himself with the musicians this weekend on Twitter. No one in the photo was wearing a mask.

A representative for Gateway told RNS in an email that the church has been “vigilant” in following Texas guidelines regarding the novel coronavirus but declined to say whether Morris had been tested for COVID-19. The church also said Morris’ “medical procedures, his medical history and all possible medical issues & precautions are a private matter.” The pastor previously has discussed his recovery after internal bleeding in 2018, a story shared again in a video shown Sunday at the church.

Ramiro Peña, pastor of Christ the King Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, was also at the Rose Garden event and preached to his congregation on Sunday, although he sat farther away from people at the ceremony who have since tested positive for COVID-19.

Reached by phone on Tuesday afternoon, a representative for his church said only “We are not at liberty to discuss the pastor’s health” before hanging up.

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Peña was part of a virtual call to prayer for Trump, hosted by the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, Sunday afternoon with Franklin, White and Jackson. They were joined by Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who sat next to Jenkins at the Rose Garden, and Graham’s daughter Cissie Graham Lynch, who sat next to her father at the same event.

A BGEA spokesperson said both Graham and Lynch took COVID-19 tests this past week and were negative but did not specify when those tests were taken. The spokesperson said Graham is currently in a “remote area of Alaska.”

Ralph Reed, who sat two seats down from Peña, was tested on Wednesday and got a negative result. However, Reed led a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Atlanta from Wednesday through Friday that featured speakers such as Vice President Mike Pence. Another scheduled speaker, Sen. James Lankford, left the conference early and quarantined after learning that Utah Sen. Mike Lee — another attendee at the Rose Garden event whom Lankford had spent time with — had also tested positive for the coronavirus. Lankford has since tested negative but remains in quarantine, citing CDC guidelines.

Reed, on the other hand, did not appear to quarantine: He closed out the indoor event on Friday evening — after news broke that both Trump and Jenkins had tested positive for COVID-19 — by making a speech.

Many of these same evangelical faith leaders also joined thousands who attended a massive prayer march in Washington, D.C., the same day as the Rose Garden event. It was led by Graham and included prayers by Heitzig; White; Prevo; Franklin; Morris; Graham; Andrew Brunson, a pastor and missionary who was imprisoned by Turkish officials for almost two years; and Christian musicians Michael W. Smith and Sean Feucht.

National reporter Emily McFarlan Miller reported from Chicago. National reporters Adelle M. Banks and Alejandra Molina also contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.

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