MADISON, Wisconsin — Democrat Gov. Tony Evers on Friday vetoed a bill that would have prohibited state and local health bureaucrats from shutting down Masses and other religious services due to COVID-19, just hours after the legislation passed the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature.
Assembly Bill 1 bounced back and forth between the Assembly and Senate since early January. The final version, which passed the Senate Friday on a party-line 19-11 vote, would prohibit state and local health officers from taking “any action to close or forbid gatherings in places of worship to control outbreaks and epidemics of COVID-19.” The bill also would have prohibited employers and state and local health departments from requiring that people receive a COVID vaccine, among a range of other COVID-related provisions.
Friday’s dustup between Evers and Republican lawmakers was just the latest in a running battle between the branches of government over how much authority the governor has in responding to the Wuhan coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The issue is already before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on Evers’ use of emergency declarations.
Lawmakers on Feb. 4 voted to suspend Evers’ most recent emergency declaration and to end the statewide mask mandate. Under state law, a governor’s emergency declaration cannot exceed 60 days unless the Legislature approves the extension, which it has not done since Evers’ first emergency order expired last spring.
Evers has issued six emergency declarations on COVID-19 since March 2020, the latest one on Feb. 4, just minutes after lawmakers suspended his January emergency order. The dispute has sparked what Republican lawmakers call a constitutional crisis, while Democrats applaud Evers for his repeated emergency orders and mask mandates. Lawmakers could vote again to overturn Evers’ order, or seek redress again before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Evers does not support the religious-freedom protections in Assembly Bill 1 or the ban on mandatory vaccines, measures he said would limit the state’s efforts to control COVID. “Wisconsinites know a compromise when they see one, and this isn’t it,” Evers said. “We had a bill that Republicans and Democrats supported—and one that I said I would sign if it was sent to my desk—that passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote. Unfortunately, Republicans once again chose to put politics before people, abandoned that compromise, and passed a bill they knew I wouldn’t sign.”
Sen. André Jacque, R-De Pere, slammed the veto and said he will push individual bills to protect worship services and prevent mandatory vaccines. “It is disturbing that Gov. Evers is indicating support for unchecked bureaucratic power in clear violation of our citizens’ fundamental, constitutional rights,” Jacque said. “Using the heavy hand of government to close churches and force vaccinations is antithetical to our Constitution, and I will be pushing for each of the measures I authored separately to be swiftly passed by the legislature and sent to the Governor’s desk so that he cannot hide behind omnibus legislation as a defense of his attack on our rights as citizens.”
Sen. Van Wangaard, R-Racine, said the veto will cause more than 100,000 unemployed workers to lose federal benefits on Feb. 8, and jeopardizes $49 million a month for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill also included $100 million for testing, vaccines and protective equipment. “He wants employers to be able to force employees to take the vaccine, and he wants state and local health officials to be able to close churches,” Wangaard said. “Pathetic.”
Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, blamed Republicans for not acting on COVID legislation for nearly 300 days. “The Republicans have again failed the people of Wisconsin and they deserve better. They deserve to be led out of this pandemic. The Republicans should have stood by their word and followed through with the bipartisan bill that they previously agreed to last month.”
The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s five bishops and 1.2 million Catholics, supported AB-1 and its religious-freedom protections. 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,” said WCC Executive Director Kim Vercauteren.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court in May 2020 struck down Evers’ “Safer at Home” program that essentially quarantined Wisconsin’s 5.82 million residents to prevent spread of COVID-19. The court said Evers’ quarantine order was a “vast seizure of power” that usurped mandatory oversight by the Wisconsin Legislature. The governor’s repeated emergency declarations since spring have prompted litigation that is before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
There is growing concern that the COVID pandemic is leading to serious threats to religious liberty. The Diocese of Madison in June 2020 threatened to sue Dane County over its COVID health order that limited attendance at Holy Mass to 50 people. The county later dropped the cap and began treating churches the same as other “essential” businesses. A coalition of Catholic and other private schools sued Dane County in August over a last-minute health order closing schools to in-person instruction for grades 3-12. The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction allowing the schools to open for fall 2020 instruction. That case was argued before the court in December, and a decision could come at any time.
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