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Wisconsin legislators vote to ban church closures and mandatory vaccinations

The bill’s main sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt of Fond du Lac, said Gov. Tony Evers should have acknowledged he has no power to infringe on constitutionally protected rights.

Wisconsin State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt speaks in favor of his three bills to prevent COVID-19 church closures and prohibit government and employers from requiring that individuals get a COVID vaccine. (Screen grab / WisEye Live Broadcast)

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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About Joseph M. Hanneman 60 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

10 Comments

  1. This is more an attempt to silence a Democratic governor by a Republican legislative body than it is a religious stand on worship or a constitutional stand on freedom to not vaccinate.

    I take no stand on the issues. I simply make the observation that a convenient pair of issues arose with which to do this. The recent history of Wisconsin politics I believe will support this conclusion.

    • You claim to take no stand on issues, but you are obviously supporting the Democrats’ clear and persistent violations of civil liberties and constitutional rights. You’re kidding, right?

    • The government had no right to close the churches or forbid free assembly for a disease with a 99% recovery rate, and the Bishops should never have agreed. Having no opinion is how the people of Germany allowed Hitler to be VOTED into office and then slowly turned into a dictator. An inch by inch surrender of rights. So far I dont see the “wonderful” Dem governors who have done so much damage across the country relinquishing their power yet. Maybe they dont want to notice that Covid infection rates have dropped drastically for the last SIX WEEKS and it’s time for them to step back.Its telling that Democrat Newsom in California is under a recall proposition and Democrat Cuomo the Emmy Winner is looking at being forced out of office in the death of thousands of elderly nursing home patients, not to mention the sexual harassment charges. Neither is able to bring themselves to admit the mistakes they have made. This is the result of thinking the most important person in the room is YOU, and nobody’s else’s lives matter.

    • I know several of the legislatures personally and I can assure you that their motive is to uphold religious and individual liberty. Where you say “convenient”, I say “timely”.

  2. The sad thing for those on the left is that if freedom means NOTHING to you, you dont seem to feel it is vital for others either. Folks like that could not be more mistaken.Sadly, they believe their position is right. It is not. If you want to live in a concentration camp type society, then folks will have to jump when their government says jump. Many of us choose NOT to cooperate with that. People are freaking about a disease with a better than 99% recovery rate. I am in my late 60’s and have had covid. Clearly, I am not dead. Defend your rights before you have none left.

  3. I know many people who, like me, will not take any vaccine that involves the use of human fetal cells in its development or testing. It is sheer casuistry, in my opinion, to ignore this reality and declare its use as permissible because a certain amount of time has elapsed since the child was killed in his or her mother’s womb and the kidney removed while the baby was alive.

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