MADISON, Wisconsin — Outrage over Dane County’s last-minute change of health rules to limit attendance at religious services to 50 people spilled into the streets of downtown Madison on Friday, as nearly 200 Catholics marched from the state Capitol to the City-County Building in protest.
On Thursday, May 28, Dane County health officials notified the Diocese of Madison that it no longer classifies churches as essential operations under its emergency coronavirus pandemic rules. That decision limits Mass attendance to 50 people, regardless of the size of the church building.
Msgr. James Bartylla, vicar general of the Diocese of Madison, said individual churches could face a $1,000 fine for violating the rule. “It was made clear that government watchers would be present at parishes, in order to cite offending churches,” Bartylla wrote in an email to priests. “As such, the Diocese of Madison, under grave protest, now is forced to direct Catholic churches and oratories in Dane County to comply with the 50-person limit for religious services, solely for the reason to avoid citation and punitive enforcement.”
News of the clampdown on religious gatherings spread like wildfire among Dane County’s Catholic parishes. Two priests of the diocese, Rev. Brian Dulli and Rev. Richard Heilman, organized a Rosary rally outside the state Capitol. A procession, led by four men carrying a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, made its way around the Capitol Square and over two blocks to the City-County Building. There, Fr. Dulli had some choice words for county bureaucrats.
“You tried to pull a fast one, and we are not afraid,” said Dulli, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in nearby Cottage Grove. “We’re not interested in complying any longer with unjust orders.” Speaking through a megaphone, Fr. Dulli aimed his remarks at Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “Every person has the choice not to be participating in evil. We can say, ‘Enough!’ We don’t need to use a pandemic as a thin excuse to suppress church, to put arbitrary rules in place.”
The about-face by the county left the diocese very little time to react. Masses are set to reopen on Pentecost weekend for the first time since mid-March. Under initial county emergency orders, churches were considered essential operations, so attendance at Masses would be limited to 25 percent of seating capacity. With the strict new limit, priests will be faced with turning people away at the door, or risk the punitive fines.
“They made this up. This is clearly, clearly discriminating against people of faith,” Fr. Heilman said Friday on the Vicki McKenna Show, a popular talk-radio program. “There’s no other way you can look at this.”
Host Vicki McKenna, who is Catholic, likened the decision to send observers to churches to the tactics of the Stasi, the secret police in former Communist East Germany. “They’re going to send observers, I like to call them spies. The church Stasi, let’s call them that,” she said. “The county and city are going to send spies to the churches to count heads.”
“Where are we? Are we in America or some other place on the planet?” Fr. Heilman asked. To which McKenna replied, “Well, this is ‘Planet Madison.’”
Bishop Donald J. Hying declined to comment further on the controversy, or indicate if the diocese would take legal action, said Brent King, a spokesman for the Diocese of Madison.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 13 struck down the statewide coronavirus lockdown enacted by Gov. Tony Evers. In a 4-3 ruling, the court said Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” initiative was “unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable” and struck it down as a “vast seizure of power” that usurped mandatory oversight by the Wisconsin Legislature.
A number of counties immediately enacted their own versions of the state lockdown. Several have since backed off after receiving legal guidance that the state high court’s ruling would also apply to local health officials. However, Dane County has continued to issue rules and regulations to control the re-opening of businesses, restaurants, bars, theaters and other places of commerce. Dane is the only county in the 11-county Diocese of Madison with the strict limit on attendance at church services.
County Executive Parisi this week called on the state to enact new regulations to slow the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus known as COVID-19. “What was lost in the political debate about when and how to re-open is the fact we are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, where if we lose focus on why we had orders in the first place, people will needlessly suffer,” Parisi said.
Treating churches in a more restrictive fashion than hardware stores, restaurants or movie theaters is not a just solution, according to the organizers and rally attendees.
“Are they sending paid observers to the movie theaters and restaurants, if they’re over the 25 percent limit?” Fr. Heilman asked. “I’ll bet my last dollar they’re not.”
After leading the attendees in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, Fr. Dulli decried what he called the county’s “bait and switch” tactics. “What you are doing is clearly wrong, and everybody sees it,” Dulli said. “Everybody knows. There’s no hiding.”
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