MADISON, Wisconsin — At a time when violence in the streets and a public health pandemic weigh heavily on people’s minds, Bishop Donald J. Hying said Wednesday that the answer is more access to Holy Mass and not an unconstitutional 50-person limit imposed by health officials in Dane County.
The Diocese of Madison and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty delivered a 17-page letter to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes Conway demanding the virus-inspired limit on Mass attendance and other religious gatherings be dropped. Drafted by Washington D.C. law firm Sidley Austin LLP, the letter says the health restriction issued May 22 is unconstitutional and stifles the church’s pastoral mission. The diocese indicated it is prepared to file a lawsuit if the city and county don’t drop the 50-person limit.
“We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re not trying to be conflictual. We’re just saying that there’s a religious freedom issue here, and more than ever right now, people need church,” Hying said in an interview with Catholic World Report. “We’ve lived without the Eucharist for eleven weeks. For us as Catholics, Sunday Mass is everything. We need to come back to Sunday Mass.”
The cease-and-desist letter came less than a week after nearly 200 Catholics held a Rosary rally and protest march from the Capitol Square in Madison to the City County Building. The group processed behind a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and stopped outside the county offices to deliver a message regarding the restrictions on Mass attendance. “Were not interested in complying any longer with unjust orders,” said Rev. Brian Dulli, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin.
Public celebration of Holy Mass was suspended in the Diocese of Madison on March 16 as a result of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. The Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 13 struck down the State of Wisconsin’s quarantine orders as an unconstitutional overreach. However, several Wisconsin counties enacted their own health regulations to limit the movement of the population and regulate places of commerce and other gathering venues. Public Health Madison & Dane County has issued three emergency orders as part of reopening plans.
Initially, as part of a plan to loosen what was basically a societal lockdown, health officials told the diocese that churches were considered “essential services” and could reopen at 25 percent of each building’s operating capacity. The diocese then announced worship guidelines based on those orders. Late last week, however, health officials reversed course and ruled religious organizations were subject to a limit of 50 people at any gathering, regardless of building size or social-distancing measures. Many other organizations, such as movie theaters, restaurants, bars, health clubs and shopping malls, were not subject to the same limit on daily operations. Diocesan officials said they were not consulted on the change in plans.
Catholic Churches in Dane County were threatened with a fine of $1,000 per incident for violating the order. They were also told government monitors would attend worship services to ensure the limits were respected, Hying said. No fines were issued during the first weekend of the regulation.
Madison and Dane County think mass protests, movies and malls are just fine, but churches have to be put under surveillance to make sure not too many people go,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is assisting the diocese in the case. “If it’s safe enough for thousands to shop together at malls and to sit in a theater for a two-hour film, it’s safe enough to spend 45 minutes safely socially distanced in worship. Madison and Dane County should end their unequal treatment of religious people.”
Hying said being without Mass and the Holy Eucharist since March has been “a psychological and spiritual struggle” for many people. “And then you throw in the economics of it, too, it’s been very difficult for people,” he said. “We need church. We need the sacraments.”
Diocesan officials have had numerous conversations with city and county officials, Hying said, and were open to a collaboration on the issue. But as recently as Wednesday, June 3, “there’s really no bending on this,” he said. A message left by Catholic World Report for County Executive Parisi was not returned by press time.
“We’re not advocating wild irresponsibility,” Hying said. “We received feedback from pastors in our other ten counties of the diocese that celebrated Masses at the potential 25 percent capacity this past weekend. All of that went very well. People observed the norms of what they were asked to do. There wasn’t one problem or issue.”
The letter said the COVID-19 regulation on attendance “treats religious interests unequally and unfairly” and “violates the Church’s cherished constitutional freedoms and, more importantly, hobbles unconscionably its pastoral mission.”
The diocese developed “rigorous protocols” for reopening of public worship at 25 percent of building capacity, employing hygiene rules and strict social distancing measures, the letter said. “Accordingly, basic equality and honest science, not to mention the special solicitude afforded to religious freedom under both the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions, require the end of your discriminatory policy and the restoration of desperately needed in-person worship.”
Because the initial health regulations treated churches the same as other entities such as restaurants, dog parks and tattoo parlors, the stricter standard imposed later on churches “suggests an animus toward religious gatherings,” the letter said.
Bishop Hying said he does not assume any ill motives in the rules. “I wouldn’t want to conjecture on their motives and would want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said, “but clearly there was a sudden and inexplicable change which we were not consulted on and it came right on the heels of the announcement of our plan.”
Hying said the urgent need for more access to the Mass has been shown over the past week in Madison and other cities with the outbreak of violence due to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while being restrained by Minneapolis police. Four former Minneapolis police officers have been charged with felonies in the case, including second-degree murder and aiding and abetting murder. Several nights of protests in downtown Madison led to rioting, widespread vandalism and looting. More than 70 businesses were damaged.
“The only power that is going to heal what is broken in our society and in the human being is the love of Christ,” Bishop Hying said. “The love of Christ is made most profoundly manifest in the celebration of Mass. Theres a direct connection between getting more people to Mass and peace in our society. Religion needs to be the cornerstone of any culture thats going to flourish in a human and humane way.”
Hying said while he hopes the city and county change their mind on the attendance policy, the diocese is fully prepared to go to court. “I would have hope at this point that the letter we sent today would have its effect and there would still be ability for a conversation and a change of course on the part of the county before that (litigation) would occur,” Hying said. As for potential litigation, “We would be prepared for that, yes. That was made clearer today.”