Fighting for faith

Empower Wisconsin | May 29, 2020

 By M.D. Kittle and Joshua Waldoch 

MADISON — In the latest assault on civil liberties, Dane County’s new draconian reopening step will “allow” places of worship to hold services, but with 50 or fewer people in attendance. Churches that exceed the limit are subject to $1,000 fines. 

The restrictions and punitive fines are not sitting well with many in the Madison-area faith community, who feel like they are being singled out by liberal policymakers. 

“I am not a fan of the state of Wisconsin regulating who attends the service or the quantity of people who may attend,” Jason Miller, pastor of Christ the King Community Church in Stoughton, told Empower Wisconsin. 

Word spread quickly. Leaders of Dane County Catholic churches on Friday afternoon organized a Religious Freedom Rally and Rosary march on State Street to the Capitol to peacefully protest the exclusionary restrictions. (No Targets or Autozones were looted and burned during the demonstration.) 

Nearly 200 Catholics turned out. They had much to say about the city’s restrictions on places of worship. 

“You tried to pull a fast one, and we are not afraid,” the Rev. Brian Dulli pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cottage Grove said through a megaphone, according to the Catholic World Report. “We’re not interested in complying any longer with unjust orders.” Dulli, one of the organizers of the march directed his remarks at Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. 

“Every person has the choice not to be participating in evil. We can say, ‘Enough!’ We don’t need to use a pandemic as a thin excuse to suppress church, to put arbitrary rules in place,” the religious leader said. 

On Thursday, Public Health Madison and Dane County changed a previous policy and limited the reopening of places of worship to 50 or less, Catholic Church officials said. 

“This is clear religious discrimination,” one of the demonstration attendees said. 

Christy Vogt, Health Education coordinator for the public health agency, told Empower Wisconsin the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 is to limit the number of individuals gathering at one specific time at one location to 50 people maximum, with physical distancing. 

Even if that means infringing on First Amendment rights. 

“Please understand all places that have a mass gathering, including places of worship, concerts, movie theaters, conventions and other venues are limited to the same capacity limit of 25% of capacity up to 50 people, whichever is less,” Vogt wrote in an email. “Size limits are recommended to minimize risk of transmission and exposure and reduce the spread of illness.”

The Diocese of Madison will reluctantly accede to the government’s demands, according to an email from Monsignor James Bartylla, Vicar General of the diocese, obtained by MacIver News Service. Diocese officials say the county changed its position without warning. 

“The Public Health Madison and Dane County subsequently directly contacted, both by phone and by site visit, a number of Catholic parishes in Dane County to inform them of the 50-person limit and any violation thereof,” Bartylla wrote. “As such, the Diocese of Madison, under grave protest, now is forced to direct Catholic churches and oratories in Dane County to comply with the 50-person limit for religious services, solely for the reason to avoid citation and punitive enforcement.”

Vogt asserts religious entities are not being treated any differently under the order, that all mass gatherings are treated the same, regardless of where they are being held. But church leaders ask why stores like Walmart can take in more than 50 customers at a time while parishioners are blocked from their places of worship. 

“They made this up. This is clearly, clearly discriminating against people of faith,” the Rev. Richard Heilman said Friday on the Vicki McKenna Show on NewsTalk 1310 WIBA in Madison. “There’s no other way you can look at this.”

Catholic World reported: Masses are set to reopen on Pentecost weekend for the first time since mid-March. Under initial county emergency orders, churches were considered essential operations, so attendance at Masses would be limited to 25 percent of seating capacity. With the strict new limit, priests will be faced with turning people away at the door, or risk the punitive fines.

Church leaders expressed concerns that county health officials will be closely monitoring services this weekend. 

Vogt said that won’t be happening. 

“There are no ‘government watchers’ who will be policing any business or religious entity,” she said.In the shared spirit of keeping our friends, neighbors, and loved ones well, we ask everyone to identify ways to comply with these orders to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.“

The diocese is advising anyone upset about the policy to call Parisi, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, or City-County Public Health Director Janel Heinrich and tell them “that all religious entities of Dane County be treated with the same reasonable capacity restrictions placed on other institutions under Phase 1 of its Forward Dane plan,” Bartylla wrote.

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