MADISON, Wisconsin — Local and state health officials would be barred from closing or restricting attendance at religious services to prevent spread of COVID-19 under a bill winding its way through the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature.
The omnibus Assembly Bill 1 that addresses efforts to control the COVID-19 virus at the state and local levels has been amended multiple times, most recently by the Wisconsin Senate on Jan. 28. A further vote in the Assembly will be required if the bill is to advance to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
The bill states: “A local health officer may not take any action to close or forbid gatherings in places of worship to control outbreaks and epidemics of COVID-19.” It also prohibits the Wisconsin Department of Health Services from closing or forbidding attendance at religious services due to COVID-19. The legislation prohibits employers, local health officers and the state health department from mandating that people receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
The Wisconsin legislation represents the first major pushback against what many viewed as government overreach in trying to control the Wuhan coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The virus first appeared in Wisconsin one year ago. A number of Democrats said Assembly Bill 1 faces a likely veto by Evers. “This is something that should be vetoed by the governor,” said Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee. The bill could put at risk federal COVID relief funds slated for Wisconsin, he said.
Republican proponents said constitutional protections for religious liberty are a key part of the bill.
“Citizens have a fundamental right to expect that their constitutionally protected religious freedom will be respected by officials at all levels of government, including the right to freely worship unencumbered by the government,” said Sen. André Jacque, R-DePere. “Unfortunately, religious liberty has been trampled on by some unelected bureaucrats and elected officials in their response to COVID-19.”
Kim Vercauteren, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said Wisconsin’s five bishops strongly support the idea of making religious services exempt from closure orders. Catholic parishes are able to hold Masses while simultaneously implementing disease-mitigation policies, she said.
“Allowing public health authorities to close places of worship is a drastic measure that fails to recognize the great need that many have for mental and spiritual care, especially during these challenging times,” Vercauteren said. “Catholics find solace in the Mass. As this pandemic continues and the frailties of our social order become ever more evident, there is an increasing need for worship, the Eucharist and prayer, especially for those mourning the loss of a loved one.”
Vercauteren said worship is protected by the highest law. “Faith is essential. As a people of faith, we are called to serve God and all who are made in the image and likeness of God. For this reason, faith is social. It is a shared communion with our neighbor and cannot be practiced in a vacuum or in isolation. Worship with others is the necessary exercise of faith and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Jacque told Catholic World Report his office received a lot of feedback on how state and local health officials handled the pandemic. Jacque authored a Senate bill that would also prevent closing or restriction of worship due to COVID-19. Senate Bill 7 was approved by a Senate committee on Jan. 21. The bill “reflects a concern I’ve had since executive actions early during the pandemic,” he said.
“With facilities like liquor stores and abortion clinics previously recognized by public health departments as essential businesses and being allowed to operate without harassment while churches and other places of worship were shut down, we must ensure that people’s right to freely assemble and worship are not impeded,” Jacque said in his public testimony.
After the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Evers’ “Safer at Home” order in May 2020, a number of counties issued health orders that set strict limits on attendance at religious services during the COVID pandemic. This while big-box hardware and grocery stores were open under less-restrictive measures. The Diocese of Madison threatened to sue Dane County in June 2020 over its health order limiting worship attendance to 50 people at a time. Bishop Donald J. Hying argued that the restrictions on worship were unconstitutional. Dane County backed off its strict controls on churches, and has since made accommodations for houses of worship in its emergency COVID-19 health orders.
The Wisconsin Senate also approved a resolution that would end the health emergency declaration and mask mandate signed by Evers on Jan. 19. If the Assembly approves the resolution, the emergency order will be null and void. The joint resolution does not require the governor’s signature.
Republicans argue that Evers’ initial COVID-19 emergency declaration that expired in May 2020 was the only order he had the power to enact. Further emergency orders would require legislative approval. However, Evers issued a number of emergency orders since May 2020, including an ongoing requirement that people wear masks in public places. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering a case regarding Evers’ use of emergency declarations to control COVID-19.
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