MADISON — The Wisconsin Department of Corrections violated state law and Wisconsin’s constitution when it issued its COVID-19 visitor policy barring Catholic clergy from ministering to inmates, Jefferson County Judge William Hue ruled last week.
The policy, in effect for over a year, contained no exceptions for vaccinated clergy or instances where religious services could not be conducted virtually, yet the DOC simultaneously granted institutional access to lawyers, public officials, and members of the press, among many others.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) sued the Department of Corrections in May 2021 on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee seeking to invalidate the visitor policy.
“Religious interests (guaranteed by the Wisconsin Constitution) and the privilege to clergy (granted by the Wisconsin Legislature through statute) were not given consideration by (the DOC) in denying them access to state correctional institutions for over 450 days,” the ruling states. The department “acts in that regard were not tailored narrowly to meet competing state interests and (the Archdiocese’s) rights. They were not tailored at all.”
On March 13, 2020, as the COVID-19 outbreak began, DOC announced, “out of an abundance of caution,” all visits, including volunteer visits, would be temporarily suspended at all DOC institutions. For more than 15 months, Catholic clergy were forbidden from fulfilling their religious duty to meet in-person with inmates.
They could not administer sacraments or even meet in-person to provide counseling. At the same time, DOC granted in-person access to a host of other individuals ranging from lawyers to law enforcement to teachers to dog trainers.
The lawsuit alleged the DOC policy violated the free exercise of religion. Wisconsin state law, (Freedom of worship, religious ministration), provides in part: “Subject to reasonable exercise of the privilege, members of the clergy of all religious faiths shall have an opportunity, at least once each week, to conduct religious services within the state correctional institutions. Attendance at the services is voluntary.” The state constitution, in turn, bars government officials from burdening sincere religious beliefs unless it is the least restrictive way to serve a compelling governmental interest. The DOC violated both these commands by issuing a blanket ban while affording access under health and safety protocols to other types of individuals, according to WILL.
“This is a good day for religious liberty in Wisconsin. Department of Corrections bureaucrats may not simply disregard the statutory and constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s clergy or relegate those rights to second-class status,” Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel at the Milwaukee civil rights law firm. “This decision will help ensure that officials across state government put the religious rights of Wisconsinites first in the future rather than last.”