Empower Wisconsin | June 8, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Fearing a legal challenge, Dane County on Friday dropped its draconian restrictions on places of worship that capped in-person services at 50 congregants.
Church leaders found the public health order fundamentally unfair because many Dane County businesses were allowed to open up to 25 percent capacity, which in some cases meant considerably more patrons than the 50-person limit placed on churches.
The new order allows places of worship, too, to hold services up to 25 percent capacity.
“Our church can seat 625 people, and we can observe all of the social distancing requirements to comfortably seat 104 people. So the city’s order to have a 50-or-less limit wasn’t solid ground the city could stand on. That’s why we felt we were being singled out or why we believe we were treated differently,” said Rev. Michael Radowicz, pastor at St. Bernard Parish on Atwood Ave.
Attorneys representing the Catholic Diocese of Madison sent a letter to Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi earlier this week seeking equitable treatment. The nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty led the legal effort, noting the constitutional issues raised by the government’s failure to provide equal treatment.
While local government officials relented, they doubled down in defending the original health orders.
“Public Health Madison & Dane County stands by its efforts to protect the public, contain the virus and do so in a way that is neutral and even-handed, with the health and safety of all of Dane County’s residents being the top priority,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County,” told Madison.com.
“The intent of this order was to reduce the risk of a flare-up of COVID-19 occurring in churches that could quickly overwhelm Public Health contact tracing and our healthcare systems,” Rhodes-Conway said.
If the county is worried about flare-ups, why aren’t local officials limiting crowds involved in recent protests — and riots — in Madison?
Radowicz was just happy to get as many of his church family members as possible back together again after a long absence. He was busily preparing communications Friday afternoon informing parishioners of the new rules and getting ready for weekend mass at the historic church.
“I know for those coming back to mass, they will take the news well,” the pastor said.