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Court: Local health officers can't close schools

Posted at 12:15 p.m. on June 11, 2021

The Brillion News

MADISON - The Supreme Court of Wisconsin on Friday, June 11, issued a 4-3 decision in the case of WCRIS v. Heinrich, ruling that the Madison-Dane County health department lacked the authority to issue an order closing all schools, public and private, in August of 2020.

The conservative constitutional law group, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), filed an original action with the Supreme Court on behalf of eight Dane County families, five private schools, School Choice Wisconsin Action (SCWA), and the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools (WCRIS).

The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction on September 10, 2020, allowing Dane County schools to reopen while the case was under consideration.

Oral arguments were heard in December of 2020.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley, said, “Local health officers do not have the statutory authority to close schools under Wis. Stat. § 252.03. ... Because [Public Health Officer Janel] Heinrich’s Order violates the Petitioners’ fundamental constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, it cannot stand.”

“The order from Public Health Madison & Dane County closing all county schools was illegal, unnecessary, and unconstitutional," said WILL CEO and general counsel Rick Esenberg. "Even as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, the Court’s decision provides a critical correction that ought to prevent future abuses of power in an emergency.”

On August 21, 2020, Public Health Madison & Dane County ordered all schools, public and private, to close for in-person learning for grades 3-12.

WILL said the order came without warning, disrupting several private schools in Dane County that were preparing to start in-person instruction the following week. At least one Dane County private school had already been open for a week when the order was issued.

WILL argued that Wisconsin law does not give county health departments the authority to order the closure of all schools for in-person instruction. Additionally, WILL argued the order unconstitutionally infringed upon the constitutional right of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children, as well as rights to religious liberty.

Heinrich issued a statement saying she would comply, but was not happy with the court's decision.

"We are extremely disappointed in the court’s decision, which has much further reaching implications than just this current pandemic. This decision hinders the ability of local health officers in Wisconsin to prevent and contain public health threats for decades to come," Heinrich said.

She said should would continue to provide guidance and recommendations for school districts in the county.


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