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MADISON, Wis. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Wisconsin diocese is standing up for religious liberty and for parishioners who have been craving the sacraments since the Wuhan pandemic church closings.
Lawyers representing the diocese of Madison sent a letter to county and city officials on June 3 explaining that the most recent public health guidelines represent "unequal treatment of churches [and] violates the First Amendment and the Wisconsin Constitution."
The letter, delivered by e-mail and by hand, alerted Dane County executive Joseph T. Parisi, Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Janel Heinrich, director of Madison and Dane County public health of the need to resolve the issue by June 5 to avoid litigation — and "so that churches may prepare appropriately for upcoming weekend Masses."
The signatories of the letter make clear that "the Church has no particular interest in litigation or in a protracted dispute or an uncooperative relationship with civil authorities." But they point out that "the Church is legally and morally entitled to be treated equally with other similarly situated nonreligious associations that have been permitted to reopen up to 25% capacity," the standard used for retail stores.
The lawyers also made clear that the Church remains and will continue to remain "subject to rigorous social distancing and hygiene practices."
A June 3 press release issued by Becket points out that "Protests and movies [are] treated better than church services in Madison/Dane County." It calls "discriminatory" the City's and County's May 22 public health order that limited in-person Church worship to no more than 50 people and argues it "targets the Catholic Church for selective enforcement."
Bishop Donald Hying of Madison is quoted in the press release:
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial injustice of the past week, our community is crying out for unity, for grace and for spiritual healing. We are ready and able to answer that call, but the 50-person cap has unjustly stifled our pastoral mission. Our diocese has been, and remains, committed to promoting and protecting the health and safety of our fellow Madisonians, but the county and city have wrongly subordinated the spiritual needs of the community to the operations of non-essential businesses."
Vice president and senior counsel at Becket, Eric Rassbach, stated, "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," adding, "If it's safe enough for thousands to shop together at malls, and to sit in a theatre 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," he said summarily.
Another diocese in Wisconsin is challenging authorities for access to Mass.
The archdiocese of Milwaukee reopened Masses to the public during the last weekend of May — defying a state order that still bans gatherings of more than 10 people.
Milwaukee's Abp. Jerome Listecki said that under his jurisdiction, the churches are limiting attendance to 25% capacity, according to the Milwaukee Journal.
On May 31 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the archbishop estimated that about 40 people attended, adding that even under COVID-19 conditions the cathedral can safely accommodate about 130 people relative to its normal capacity of 750.
President Trump famously gave his support to churches and other places of worship affirming First Amendment rights, declaring on May 22: "Today, I am identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogues and mosques as essential places that provide essential services."
The president also said he would "override" governors who don't allow places of worship to open, adding, "Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential" but not churches, he said. "It's not right. So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential."
"These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united," he said, underscoring their importance.
Confirming the importance of religious liberty, Becket has stated: "The First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause protects religious Americans from undue burdens on their religious exercise. When churches are given a special disability not felt by secular entities, the government is violating the Free Exercise Clause by burdening religious practice."
Ryan Colby, media contact at Becket law firm, confirmed to Church Militant that since May 22 — the date the most recent COVID-19 guidelines were issued — the Madison/Dane County Health Department has phoned and visited diocesan officials and parishes multiple times to warn that surveillance teams would be sent to churches to make sure parishes were following all the guidelines and that fines of up to $1,000 would be imposed for every instance in which more than 50 people were gathered for Mass.