Judgment Day for state after restricting pastors during COVID


(Photo by Joe Kovacs)
(Photo by Joe Kovacs)

A state judge in Wisconsin has ruled that the Department of Corrections broke the law when it decided to give lawyers and bureaucrats and even reporters and dog trainers access to inmates during COVID, but refused to provide any procedure for clergy to visit.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty cited the summary judgment from Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge William Hue that found state officials violated the law and Wisconsin Constitution with their restrictions.

He granted the plaintiffs request for a summary judgment, a declaratory judgment and a permanent injunction against the corrections agency.

The organization had acted on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in bringing the case over clergy access to prisoners.

The corrections department barred Catholic clergy from ministering in-person to the spiritual needs of inmates under a COVID-19 visitor policy. It kept the policy in place for over a year, providing no access by even vaccinated clergy, or for instances where religious services could not be conducted virtually.

“Yet WIDOC simultaneously granted institutional access to lawyers, public officials, and members of the press, among many others,” WILL documented.

“Religious interests (guaranteed by the Wisconsin Constitution) and the privilege to clergy (granted by the Wisconsin Legislature through statute) were not given consideration by [WIDOC] in denying them access to state correctional institutions for over 450 days. [WIDOC’s] acts in that regard were not tailored narrowly to meet competing state interests and [the Archdiocese’s] rights. They were not tailored at all,” the judge found.

“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. This decision will help ensure that officials across state government put the religious rights of Wisconsinites first in the future rather than last,” explained Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel for WILL.

The state agency had announced in March 2020 that it wanted to “minimize” the risk of COVID in prisons, so “[a]ll visits, including volunteer visits, are temporarily suspended at all Department of Corrections Institutions.”

“For 450 days, Catholic clergy were forbidden from fulfilling their religious duty to meet in-person with inmates at Wisconsin’s correctional institutions; they could not administer sacraments or even meet in-person to provide counseling. At the same time, however, WIDOC granted in-person access to a host of other individuals ranging from lawyers to law enforcement to teachers to dog trainers,” the report from WILL confirmed.

The lawsuit claimed corrections officials broke state law and violated its constitution.

For example, Wisconsin law states, “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 court’s ruling means that corrections department had to cancel the restrictive policy and is not allowed to renew it in the future.

The judge noted that the state agency “simply ‘shut off’ clergy access completely for over 450 days…”

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