UPDATE: Becket Fund and law firms team up with @MadisonDiocese to OPEN UP CHURCHES

UPDATE: 5 June 2020:

The County and City backed down.

Brief Statement from Bishop Donald Hying, regarding today’s decision by County officials:

“We are pleased that the County and the City have ended the unequal 50-person cap on religious gatherings. As bishop, it is my duty to ensure that Sunday Mass be available as widely as possible to the Catholic faithful, while following best practices when it comes to public health. Indeed, in a time of deep division, it is more important than ever for the Church to provide solace and comfort to all, in the great tradition of American religious freedom. We look forward to working together with the County and City to continue the reopening process in a safe, cooperative, and responsible manner.”


This is big. From the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

For Immediate Release: June 3, 2020

My emphases…

WASHINGTON –Global law firms Sidley Austin and Troutman Sanders, along with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sent a letter today to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison explaining that the City and County’s May 22 public health order that capped in-person worship at just 50 people is discriminatory and targets 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 has also announced that public protests are not subject to government restrictions at all. Madison/Dane County threatened to send government officials to Catholic Masses to find out how many people are there and impose $1000 fines if too many people came to church. The letter explains that Madison/Dane County’s actions violate the First Amendment 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. This means that some churches are held to while trampoline parks, movie theaters and virtually all other entities can operate to at least 25%.

“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 has multiple times called and visited Diocesan officials and parishes to inform them that surveillance teams would be sent to churches and fines of up to $1000 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.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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  1. Dbechtel says:

    I believe this question has already been decided by the SCOTUS. The SCOTUS has upheld restrictions on churches during this pandemic. The decision was recently decided 5-4 with Roberts casting his vote with the liberals.

    [Gosh! Maybe you should tell the people at Becket and those law firms! Maybe they haven’t heard! Orrrr…. maybe there’s more to it?]

  2. Elizabeth D says:

    THANK YOU Bishop Hying, Becket, et al.

    State Street in Madison is FULLY BOARDED UP FROM END TO END (about a mile) after a few nights of window smashing and looting.

    Mayor Satya walked away from me on Sunday on shattered, charred and grafitti’ed State Street after I pleaded that churches are places that support people to live uprightly and our community needs that. So, I do feel like she was not going to be interested in our rights without getting courts involved.

  3. thomistking says:

    @Dbechtel SCOTUS upheld restrictions on the exercise of religion, as long as those restrictions don’t single out religion. The idea is that religious activity can be restricted if it is restricted in ways in which all comparable activities are. However, this clearly seems to be a case where Churches are singled out and is thus likely unconstitutional.

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  5. Josephus Corvus says:

    Are there any GoFundMe pages to help with the bail for the priests, bishops, or faithful in Madison who are challenging this on the ground by holding and participating in “illegal” Masses?

  6. acardnal says:

    I am grateful to Bishop Hying and the Becket Fund for doing this. I wonder if the diocese has partnered with other religious groups in the county in this lawsuit or is it proceeding alone?

  7. Ultrarunner says:

    By hiring lawyers in an effort not to be constrained by a 50 person attendance cap, the Catholic Diocese of Madison is disregarding the clear intentions of the Papal Encyclical Laudato Sii, disregarding the intent of a recent US Supreme Court decision, disregarding the decision of their locally elected civic leaders, and jeopardizing their highly privileged legal and tax exempt status, all in order to a.) be treated exactly like every other heavily regulated and heavily taxed business, b.) resume single-point-of-contact hand feeding of a largely spiritually unworthy population during a viral pandemic and c.) resume compelling people to attend weekly mass under pains of hell.

    In contrast, just last week this blog wanted its readers to take a historical perspective and simply “SIT ON THE COUCH” [sic] per government guidance. The very next day, however, it was Action Item!, Resist!, the government is acting like the East German secret police against the Church!

    What a difference a day can make.

    The, “one rule for thee and another for me,” duplicity of bishops and priests promoting their own self interests is on full display in this matter, and it even apparently overrides the basic principle of a civil society doing what little it can to preserve human life and promote human health during a pandemic.

    The last thing in the world the bishops or their legal teams want is for the government to treat the Church like any other business, much less use this occasion as an opportunity to lead by drastically reducing their own carbon footprint according to the stated magisterial desires of the Pope with respect to the entire western world.

    If a bishop feels compelled to take legal action in order to be treated like common businesses engaged in making a profit, one can only hope he wildly succeeds.

    This is America after all. Let the market decide. It’s certainly preferable to the existing two class system which finds rank hypocrisy trickling down from every quarter of the upper class.

  8. Kerry says:

    ElizabethD, from Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard address. (I suspect it did not play in Madison.)
    “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil….However, in early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were — State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the 19th Century….If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.”
    The speech is here, in simultaneous English translation, delivered in Russian. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/alexandersolzhenitsynharvard.htm

  9. Dbechtel says: I believe this question has already been decided by the SCOTUS. The SCOTUS has upheld restrictions on churches during this pandemic. The decision was recently decided 5-4 with Roberts casting his vote with the liberals.

    This is far from a closed issue, as Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent makes clear. The liberals don’t give up when they lose in court or at the ballot box, and neither should we. By the way, the text of the opinion and dissent in South Bay United Pentecostal v. Newsom can be read here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19a1044_pok0.pdf#page=4

    There are also state constitutions. Freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution may be (and in some cases, are) granted greater protection under a state constitution.

  10. What I’ve noticed is that more often than not, the tyrants back down when they are challenged, which makes the Church’s general (with a few exceptions) silence and complicity all the more irritating. Scratch a bully and you find a frightened coward (see the Prisoner episode “Hammer into Anvil.”) I was even thinking today that I should have volunteered to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit, but never having done such a thing, I wouldn’t know where to begin– and it’s hard for someone to make a First Amendment complaint when his own bishop is probably not behind him. “Well, your bishop says here that you weren’t required to attend Mass…”

  11. Sandy says:

    Correct, Anita Moore. The Pentecostal church in our county was ruled against by SCOTUS. I had hoped for a different outcome, to send a message to our governor! May the CA bishops develop a backbone and start fighting for us!

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