Wisconsin Officials Change Guidance for Religious Gatherings After Legal Pressure

Tabernacle Baptist Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Getty Images

Public health officials in Wisconsin changed their coronavirus guidance to lift a cap on in-person gatherings for religious services. The new order treats religious gatherings the same as businesses rather than mass gatherings.

In addition to changing the guidance, the Dane County public health department issued a joint press release with the city of Madison saying that the changes were made to avoid a legal battle with the Madison Catholic Diocese.

The new guidance removes a cap on 50-person gatherings and now caps religious gatherings at 25 percent capacity. Previous guidance had treated religious congregations the same as other mass gatherings, like sporting events, concerts, or festivals. The guidance limited these events to a 50-person maximum while allowing businesses to operate at 25 percent capacity.

In addition to limiting capacity, businesses and religious entities are required to provide written policies for cleaning, hygiene, and social distancing, according to the new order.

The county stated the change was made to avoid "spending tens of thousands of dollars on costly legal proceedings" and will allow the county to continue focusing on the coronavirus crisis.

The Becket Fund, a religious liberty law firm, wrote a letter to the department on behalf of the diocese criticizing the department's order for limiting religious gatherings "without regard to the size or configuration of the venue, mitigation precautions in effect, or any other scientifically-relevant, event-specific consideration."

"To be clear, the Church has no particular interest in litigation or in a protracted dispute or an uncooperative relationship with civil authorities," the letter said. "However, the Church is legally and morally entitled to be treated equally with other similarly situated nonreligious associations that have been permitted to reopen up to 25 percent capacity."

The letter also explained the measures churches would take to minimize the risk of virus transmission.

The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison praised the decision, saying "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."

Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said the previous order was specifically intended to prevent coronavirus outbreaks in churches.

"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," she said. "I am appreciative of the number of religious denominations that are being mindful of the risk of congregating large groups in enclosed spaces right now."