03/06/2020 7:59 AM AEST

Religious Leaders Say They Were Tear-Gassed For Trump's Church Photo-Op

Police drove faith leaders off the property of St. John's Church to make room for the president, according to Rev. Gini Gerbasi.

President Donald Trump on Monday reportedly used federal police to tear-gas Christian faith leaders, along with hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered to demand an end to police brutality against Black Americans. 

Clergy were passing out water and snacks to protesters in front of St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, an Episcopal parish in Washington, DC, throughout the afternoon ― before law enforcement officials in riot gear reportedly fired tear gas and flash-bangs to disperse the crowd so that Trump could walk to the church for a photo-op. Lafayette Square is a park that lies directly north of the White House.

Rev. Gini Gerbasi, rector of a different St. John’s Episcopal Church in the city, told HuffPost that she and seminarian Julia Joyce Domenick were tear-gassed and driven off of church property by police.

“The irony, the sickening, sacrilegious irony is that we were being driven off in order for a photo opportunity to show the president and his commitment to religion ideas,” Gerbasi said. “It’s grotesque and offensive and sacrilegious.” 

She said she was acting out her religious beliefs by serving protesters at the church and that her religious freedom was violated when she was forced off church property by tear gas. 

US Secret Service agents, Park Police and National Guardsmen participated in the clearing of Lafayette Square, according to The Associated Press. For “operational security reasons,” the Secret Service declined to answer HuffPost’s questions about how and why the faith leaders were cleared from church property. A National Guard Bureau spokesman also declined to answer specifics about the dispersal.

The US Park Police did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on whether clergy were tear-gassed and driven from church property.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansk
President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John's Church in Washington, D.C., on Monday night. Faith leaders say they were among those who were tear-gassed by federal police clearing the area for the photo-op.

Domenick also wrote a Facebook post Monday night, in which she described how she was feeling: “Angry. Disbelief. Sick. In Pain.” She said she was at St. John’s Church with several friends from seminary, responding to a call from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for people of faith to gather “in prayerful solidarity” with protesters.

The protest was peaceful until law enforcement officials rushed the crowd, according to Domenick.  

“No warning...Screaming, flash grenades, and tear gas came at us. People ran as fast as they could around the corner of the church. Within minutes all of the church volunteers were met with a crowd running from the police and the police swarming the church property,” she wrote on Facebook.

“We were gassed for a photo op,” Domenick added. “Is ANY life valuable to him? Is it all about ratings?”

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Gas floats in the air as a line of police move protesters away from St. John's Church on Monday night. Law enforcement reportedly used tear gas to disperse protesters.

St. John’s Church is over 200 years old and has been nicknamed the “church of the presidents.” Every president since James Madison has attended at least one service there, according to the church’s website. The parish is part of the Episcopal Church, a progressive denomination that has often stood at odds with the president’s policies.

The basement of St. John’s Church’s parish building was set on fire Sunday night during protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis who died last week after a white police officer knelt on his neck.

The parish and its diocese responded to the damage by pledging solidarity with the protesters. Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, told HuffPost on Monday that clergy from her diocese gathered by the church to offer water, snacks and prayer to protesters. Gerbasi told Religion News Service that at least 20 other clergy showed up at St. John’s Church on Monday to help with the diocese’s outreach efforts.

“There’s a huge difference between loss of life at the hands of a police officer as part of a systemic pattern of racism, and being concerned about the basement of a church,” Budde said. “We’re trying to keep our focus on the major issues.”

Law enforcement began expelling people from the park before the 7 p.m. curfew imposed by DC’s mayor. People started running toward the patio of St. John’s Church for medical supplies. 

Gerbasi said she worked alongside the Black Lives Matter medical team to help people clear out their eyes from the tear gas. Then, she said, police started to physically force people off the church property. 

“They were pushing us off of church property when we were literally wiping away people’s tears,” Gerbasi said. “That was a moment when I thought, ‘I cannot believe this is happening.’” 

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
St. John's Episcopal Church covered in spray paint after protests. 

The White House declined to say if Trump believes the faith leaders’ removal from church property infringes on their religious rights.

“The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement to HuffPost. “Protesters were given three warnings by the US Park Police.” 

Budde said she had no idea that Trump planned to stage a photo-op outside a church in her diocese.  

“I am going to do everything in my power to disassociate our church from what the president did tonight,” she said.

Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church nationwide, accused Trump of using a church building and the Bible for “partisan political purposes.”

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Trump stands outside St. John's Church on Monday with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General Bill Barr, national security adviser Robert O'Brien, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Clemson University, told HuffPost that the president’s actions align perfectly with the goals of Christian nationalism, a phenomenon that he studies. Christian nationalism hinges on the narrative that the United States has a special covenant with the Christian God. This increasingly prominent ideology is most commonly found amongst Trump’s white evangelical supporters.

“Trump was signaling to Americans who embrace Christian nationalism that he will forcibly protect them and their vision for the United States,” Whitehead said. “Trump’s use of religious symbolism symbolically baptized his authoritarian speech.”

Those who embrace Christian nationalism won’t be concerned that the church Trump stood in front of doesn’t support his actions, Whitehead said. If anything, he said, they likely view the clergy and parishioners of that church as outside the faith because they don’t support Trump.

“In order to explain away that the clergy were tear-gassed, my guess is that they will appeal to how we are supposed to submit to authorities,” Whitehead said. “They will say that those clergy should have cleared out on their own accord.”

This article has been updated with additional details to clarify which members of the faith community were present when the area was cleared by law enforcement.