The Corner

Religion

Reopening Policies Unfairly Target Church Services in Madison, Wis.

A priest listens to a confession by a member of his congregation while practicing social distancing at the S.S. Sacramento church in Rome, Italy, March 26, 2020. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

Religious leaders in Madison, Wis., have written to local officials, calling its reopening policy unconstitutional and a “discriminatory restriction.” The letter asks that the City of Madison and Dane County COVID-19 regulations be revised to apply to houses of worship the same way they apply to other organizations and businesses.

In a letter on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Madison, several attorneys outline how local authorities are applying reopening rules unequally in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns, targeting places of worship with stricter policies than those applied to other public activities. This, they argue, “treats religious interests unequally and unfairly.”

The letter notes that the local reopening plan subjects “the routine operations of houses of worship—and of no other category of organization—to a ‘Mass Gathering’ limit of 50 persons.” Meanwhile,

retail stores, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, offices, factories, gyms, salons, tattoo parlors, spas, dog parks, contact sports, trampoline parks, movie theaters, museums, hotels, community centers, car washes—the list goes on—are all permitted to open and conduct “everyday operations” at 25 percent of their certified occupancy but without a generally applicable and blanket numerical cap.

In an initial emergency order, city officials treated religious groups in the same way as other essential businesses, declaring that “faithbased services, religious entities, and places of worship (indoor)” would be permitted to operate at 25-percent capacity. But shortly thereafter, President Trump called on state and local governments to permit houses of worship to begin reopening.

“Later that afternoon,” the letter continues, “in a seemingly targeted and hostile response to the Federal government’s calls for religious equality, [officials] abruptly reversed course and ‘revised’ the Forward Dane plan to cap all religious gatherings at 50 persons with future limits ‘to be determined.’”

Despite the fact that the local Catholic diocese released detailed plans for conducting church services at 25 percent capacity — allowing for groups larger than 50 people in the diocese’s larger churches — and enforcing social-distancing measures, the city continues to impose unnecessary restrictions by designating every worship service a “mass gathering.” Officials have gone as far as calling church leaders directly, threatening to send officers to monitor compliance with the regulation and hand out citations for violations.

“Thousands of people may shop together at a mall; hundreds of employees may arrive at an office or factory every morning to conduct the business’s everyday operations; and hundreds of children may spend a few hours bouncing off each other at trampoline parks. But, because religious services have uniformly been deemed ‘Mass Gatherings,’ no more than 50 of the 1,225 seats in Saint Maria Goretti Church may be filled,” the letter states.

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