UPDATE: Officials modify public health orders allowing more people to attend Masses Print
Around the Diocese
Friday, Jun. 05, 2020 -- 12:00 AM
Madison Coat of Arms

The following is a statement from Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison regarding today's (June 5) decision by officials to modify public health orders.

"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."

Click HERE to read the joint release from Public Health Madison & Dane County, City of Madison, and Dane County.

The following was previously published on June 3.

WASHINGTON -- Global law firms Sidley Austin and Troutman Sanders, along with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sent a letter June 3 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 as low as 5% capacity 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 called and visited Diocesan officials and parishes multiple times 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."

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