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Madison/Dane back down from church gathering limits

The Brillion News

MADISON – The Catholic Diocese of Madison said protests and movies were treated better than church services in Madison and Dane County, and warned that the joint city/county public health order was selective enforcement aimed at the church.

The warning letter was sent on Wednesday, June 3. On Friday, June 5, the city and county backed down and their joint public health agency changed its public health orders to limit church gatherings to 25 percent of a church building’s capacity. The original order had limited worship events to no more than 50 people regardless of the building's size.

The join health department said it was amending its order to save money for the taxpayers and church by avoiding litigation.

[Photo is of Bishop Donald Hying]

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and two Washington, D.C., law firms sent the letter on behalf of the Madison diocese to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway explaining that the city/county May 22 public health order that capped in-person worship at just 50 people was discriminatory and targeted the Catholic Church for selective enforcement.

Under the order, shopping malls, bars, restaurants, spas, gyms, salons, museums, movie theaters, community centers, bowling alleys, skating rinks, trampoline parks and more are not subject to the 50-person cap.

Madison’s mayor had also announced that public protests are not subject to government restrictions at all.

Madison/Dane County had threatened to send government officials to Catholic Masses to find out how many people are there and impose $1,000 fines if too many people came to church.

The letter from the diocese explained that Madison/Dane County’s actions violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Wisconsin Constitution.

After Madison/Dane County officials released the “Forward Dane” executive order on May 18 which listed houses of worship as “essential services” thus allowing them to resume in-person services at 25 percent capacity, the Diocese of Madison quickly put together a plan for safely reopening with rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols developed in accordance with CDC and WHO guidelines.

But after the Diocese announced its careful plan, in an abrupt and inexplicable reversal, the City of Madison/Dane County added a brand-new restriction on houses of worship, limiting them to just 50 people at each religious service regardless of the size of the building.

That meant that some churches were held to as low as five percent capacity while trampoline parks, movie theaters and virtually all other entities could operate to at least 25 percent.

“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,” said Bishop Donald Hying, Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison. “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.”

Since May 22, the Madison/Dane County Health Department called and visited Diocesan officials and parishes multiple times to inform them that surveillance teams would be sent to churches and fines of up to $1,000 would be imposed for every instance in which more than 50 people were gathered for Mass.

“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,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “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.”

~ Sources: Diocese of Madison via Sidney Austin LLP law firm; Public Health of Madison & Dane County.


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