MADISON, Wisconsin — For the second time in 2021, Wisconsin legislators have approved bills to protect churches from government-ordered shut-downs and ban governments and employers from requiring individuals get a COVID-19 vaccine.
The Wisconsin Assembly voted largely along party lines to approve a trio of bills on government efforts to contain outbreaks of COVID-19. The entire Wisconsin Legislature earlier this year approved an omnibus COVID-19 bill containing nearly identical provisions. Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the bill. Lawmakers decided to bring the measures back as individual bills.
Assembly Bill 24 would prohibit local health officials from closing places of worship or forbidding religious gatherings to prevent spread of the Wuhan coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Assembly on Tuesday approved AB-24 on a 61-33 vote. The bill was supported by Pro-Life Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of Wisconsin’s five bishops.
In March 2020, Gov. Tony Evers issued an emergency order that forced churches to cancel in-person worship in an effort to control spread of COVID-19. After Evers’ “Safer at Home” order was struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in May 2020, churches around the state began to open with greatly reduced capacity, some under county-ordered mitigation protocols.
The bill’s main sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt of Fond du Lac, said Evers should have acknowledged he has no power to infringe on constitutionally protected rights, and then asked churches to voluntarily cooperate in disease-control efforts.
“We have internal divisions within our congregations because they were not allowed to make that decision for themselves,” Thiesfeldt said during Tuesday’s floor debate. “The government of the state of Wisconsin caused division within churches by not allowing them to make this decision for their own parishioners. And now it’s hard to reopen.”
“This constitution is not a popularity contest,” Thiesfeldt added. “Just because we have more and more people in our society who are ambivalent to the religious rights in the First Amendment and don’t want to take part in them doesn’t mean that we can set it aside. Six months (of shutdowns) was way too long and it was unreasonable. This bill is about making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Rep. Chuck Wichgers, a Republican from Muskego, said the bill affirms religious-freedom rights enshrined in the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions. “At the public hearing on AB-24, I heard again and again that it is necessary for the faithful to gather in person,” Wichgers said. “As a Catholic, it is my personal obligation to attend Mass and receive the Body and Blood of Christ in person. I belong to a sacramental Church — it is a physical, visible and concrete religion. Virtual worship is not a substitute.”
Two other bills, approved in the Assembly on 60-33 and 59-35 votes, respectively, would prevent state government from requiring residents get a COVID-19 vaccine, and prevent employers from requiring workers be vaccinated. Nearly 26 percent of Wisconsin residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly 2.4 million vaccine doses have been administered in the state since mid-December.
“Some of whom have been eligible to receive the vaccination have made the personal health-care decision to do so. Others have chosen to wait,” Thiesfeldt said. “I find myself in that category, although I haven’t been eligible yet. And some have no plans to get it. Maybe those plans will change. We respect all of those choices.”
“The very idea that the government can be allowed to require certain medical treatments upon free individuals is loathsome to me,” Thiesfeldt said. “This is made even more suspect in that we’re focusing on a vaccination that only has emergency FDA approval.”
Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Gordon Hintz, a Democrat from Oshkosh, said the bills send the wrong message at a critical time in the fight against COVID-19. “At a time when we are trying to encourage, incentivize, get buy-in on the number of people vaccinated as a way to minimize the spread and really put an end to the COVID virus, we have bills today that actually send the opposite message,” Hintz said. “The intent behind them seems to be pandering toward the same kind of anti-science, anti-public-health position that’s out there, at the worst time possible. I would expect Governor Evers to take a strong stand against these public health measures.”
Rep. Scott Allen, Republican from Waukesha who co-sponsored both vaccine bills, said, “There is no compelling reason for government officials or employers to force individuals to receive a vaccination. Requiring a uniform is one thing — it’s temporary. A vaccine is forever. An employer should not have that much control.”
Republican Sen. André Jacque, who sponsored similar bills in the Wisconsin Senate earlier this year, said the Senate still needs to concur in the Assembly bills approved on Tuesday before they can be sent to the governor. “I am confident they will be passed during our next floor period in April,” Jacque said.
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