Empower Wisconsin | March 18, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — As governments work to stop the spread of COVID-19, one state lawmaker is urging Gov. Tony Evers and his administration to keep civil liberties in mind while they act to protect the public.
In a letter to Evers, Sen. David Craig (R-Town of Vernon) notes the people of Wisconsin appreciate the efforts by state government to take the novel coronavirus pandemic seriously. But certain safety precautions — such as the Evers administration’s order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people in most places in the states — could conflict with basic constitutional protections.
Order No. 5 effectively bans such mass gatherings at: “public or private schools, auditoriums, theaters … and places of worship or religious gatherings.” But there are exemptions for numerous institutions, including gatherings of “public, private, and charter schools only for non instructional purposes … childcare locations and retail establishments.”
Craig writes that all of these exempted institutions provide important resources for Wisconsinites, “as do places of worship.” He points to Article I, Section 18 of the state constitution, which proclaims the right to worship according to the dictates of conscience “shall never be infringed .. nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted…”
“As state government takes steps to protect the well-being of Wisconsinites, it is also important that state government not infringe upon fundamental rights of our citizenry, including the free exercise rights of individuals seeking to worship according to the dictates of their conscience,” Craig states in his letter to the governor. “This includes many religions that worship sacramentally and in concert with others of their faith.”
The rigidity of this order, Craig asserts, “makes it functionally impossible to exercise religious freedoms specifically protected under the State and U.S. Constitutions.”
The senator asks that the Evers administration considers options to provide “narrowly-tailored accommodation, as constitutionally required, be given when a place of worship can facilitate worship while providing for safe social distancing” or “specific information as to why such an accommodation cannot be given.”
“Along with providing for physical security, government must accommodate the free exercise of individuals to engage in congregational worship,” Craig concludes his letter.