Madison, Dane County Back Off Pandemic 50-Person Cap on Mass Attendance

June 05, 2020

Threat of Diocese Lawsuit was a Major Factor

By Joseph M. Hanneman

MADISON, Wisconsin — Less than 48 hours after refusing to budge on their 50-person limit on attendance at Holy Mass and other religious gatherings, local health officials abruptly dropped the rule on Friday in the face of a certain lawsuit by the Catholic Diocese of Madison and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The reversal was a swift victory for Bishop Donald J. Hying, who argued that the agency Public Health Madison & Dane County was singling out people of faith with an unconstitutional limit on attendance at Holy Mass and other religious services. Hying indicated on June 3 that the diocese would sue if the 50-person cap was not removed from emergency health orders issued during the coronavirus pandemic.

Loosened Limits on Mass Madison Bishop Donald J. Hying (left) and Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki distribute Holy Communion at Hying’s installation Mass on June 25, 2019 at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Madison. (Photo by Joseph M. Hanneman) “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,” Bishop Hying said in a statement. “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.”

Friday’s development capped a whirlwind two weeks that saw churches prepare to reopen public worship at 25 percent of building capacity, only to have an even stricter rule imposed by Public Health Madison & Dane County. The diocese was not consulted before health officials imposed the strict attendance cap. City and county officials did not respond to Hying’s messages of concern for five days, he said. When PHMDC director Janel Heinrich called Hying on June 3, “I directly asked her whether there was any room for give on their part; she said there was not,” Hying wrote in a June 4 letter to priests of the diocese.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the county did not want to engage in an expensive court battle at a time it needs to dedicate resources to fighting the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus known as COVID-19. He said the diocese’s position was a “legal gray area,” and he questioned why the Catholic Church is spending money on Washington D.C. lawyers. The diocese is being represented in the case by the Becket Fund and D.C. law firms Sidley Austin LLP and Troutman Sanders LLP.  Mass ProtestRev. Brian Dulli speaks outside the City-County Building in Downtown Madison: “What you are doing is clearly wrong,” he said. (Photo by Joseph M. Hanneman)

“Basic life needs — food, shelter and clothing — are in such demand in our community given the current pandemic, so it’s hard to imagine the best use of parishioner or taxpayer dollars right now is in a courtroom,” Parisi said. “While the request of the Bishop of Madison raises a legal gray area, the public health science here is anything but unclear: COVID-19 is here, infecting more people every day and minimizing contact in large group settings is an incredibly effective approach to staying healthy.”

As of June 5, Dane County has 800 cases of coronavirus, with 36,243 people testing negative. Twenty-nine people have died from COVID-19 in Dane County, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Wisconsin has logged 19,892 cases and 626 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus that spread from China early this year.

Heinrich defended as “neutral and even-handed” her agency’s emergency rule that limited churches’ worship-service attendance to 50 people. “These orders were put in place for a reason — we are in the midst of a public health emergency and we are going to do all  we can to reduce the risk of public infection,” she said.

Eric Rassbach, senior counsel for the Becket Fund, said the county’s change of heart “shouldn’t have taken so long.”

“The First Amendment protects both prayer and protest. Putting an arbitrary numerical cap on worship services while allowing thousands to protest makes no sense from a legal or public health perspective,” Rassbach said. “Most other governments nationwide have already lifted their COVID-related restrictions on worship. The few remaining holdouts should take note and come into compliance with the First Amendment.”

Read the rest at Catholic World Report

Choice Words for the GovernmentRev. Brian Dulli speaks to government bureaucrats in the City County Building in Downtown Madison, Wis.

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