Catholic Diocese Threatens To Sue Wisconsin City, County Over Restrictions On Religious Gatherings

( The Catholic Church in Wisconsin says it will sue the city of Madison and the county if it does not lift restrictions on religious institutions that have not been placed on other areas of life.

The Catholic Diocese of Madison said this week that the city’s and county’s re-opening plans unfairly discriminate against religious institutions by limiting their attendance to just 50 people. Meanwhile, the May 22 re-opening plan allows other public establishments to operate with up to 25% capacity.

There is no specific cap on people that applies to restaurants and bars, malls, gyms, salons, spas, movie theaters, community centers, skating rinks, bowling alleys and other public venues. The mayor of the city, Satya Rhodes-Conway, has also said she won’t impose any restrictions on protesting in the city.

Law firm Sidney Austin, which is representing the Diocese, sent a letter to the mayor as well as Dane County executive Joe Parisi and Madison/Dane County Public Health director Jahnel Heinrich.

“This treats religious interests unequally and unfairly,” the letter read in part, saying that “hundreds or even thousands” of people could attend non-religious activities if the venue could hold that many people. The letter continued:

“But in no event, not even in the largest synagogue, mosque, church or temple, and no matter how carefully spaced or protected, shall more than 50 people gather for worship. This unequal and unfair treatment violates the Church’s cherished constitutional freedoms and, more importantly, hobbles unconscionably its pastoral mission.”

For many large churches, the cap of 50 people attending would mean the building would operate at only 5% capacity — well below the 25% cap on other public venues.

The letter goes on to point out that the Diocese has been a great partner in the effort to curtail the spread of coronavirus. In fact, the Diocese suspended public Masses back on March 16, before the city and county had imposed limits on religious services.

At the same time, the Diocese said Catholic members had worked to help those “most vulnerable to COVID-19 — from comforting those in their dying moments, to hosting drive-through food drives throughout Dane County, to caring for over a hundred uninsured Madisonians each month at Our Lady of Hope Clinic.”

The Diocese further stated that it had already developed “rigorous protocols” for resume Masses at 25% capacity because previous re-opening plans didn’t mention any 50-person cap on attendance. Those protocols included hygiene rules as well as social distancing guidelines that were developed by the input from public health authorities.

The letter continued:

“Now that you have determined that circumstances allow the partial reopening of almost every Dane County business and other activity with appropriate safeguards, there is no valid, nondiscriminatory reason to maintain far stricter restrictions on houses of worship.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty also issued a press release about the issue, stating:

“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.”