Department of Corrections’ ban on clergy visits ruled unconstitutional

WILL sued the Department of Corrections on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee

The news: Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge William Hue issued a summary decision that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WIDOC) violated state law and the state constitution when the agency has prohibited Catholic clergy from attending to the spiritual needs of inmates in person under a COVID-19 visitation policy. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) sued the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in May 2021 on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee seeking the invalidation of the Visitor Policy. This policy, in effect for more than a year, contained no exceptions for vaccinated clergy or instances where religious services could not be held virtually, but WIDOC simultaneously granted institutional access to attorneys, government officials and members. press, among others.

Judge Hue wrote, inter alia, “The religious interests (guaranteed by the Constitution of Wisconsin) and the privilege of the clergy (granted by the Legislature of Wisconsin by statute) have not been taken into consideration by [WIDOC] by denying them access to state correctional facilities for more than 450 days. [WIDOC’s] acts in this regard were not narrowly tailored to meet the competing interests of the state and [the Archdiocese’s] rights. They weren’t suitable at all. »

The quote: WILL’s assistant attorney, Anthony LoCoco, said, “Today is a good day for religious freedom in Wisconsin. Department of Corrections bureaucrats cannot simply ignore the statutory and constitutional rights of Wisconsin clergy or relegate those rights to second-class status. This decision will help ensure that state government officials prioritize the religious rights of Wisconsin residents in the future rather than last.

Background: On March 13, 2020, WIDOC announcement that, “out of an abundance of caution”, in order to “minimize the risk of introducing COVID-19 (Coronavirus) into [its] facilities,” “[a]All visits, including volunteer visits, are temporarily suspended at all Department of Corrections facilities. For 450 days, Catholic clergy were barred from fulfilling their religious duty to meet in person with inmates of Wisconsin correctional facilities; they could not administer the sacraments or even meet in person to provide guidance. At the same time, however, WIDOC granted in-person access to a slew of others ranging from lawyers and law enforcement to teachers and dog trainers.

The lawsuit alleged that WIDOC’s policy violated both state law and the state’s constitutional guarantee to the free exercise of religion. Wisconsin State Law, WisconsinStat. §301.33 (“Freedom of worship; religious ministry.”), provides in particular: “Subject to reasonable exercise of this privilege, members of the clergy of all religious denominations shall have the opportunity, at least once a week, to celebrate religious services within the penitentiary establishments of the State. Participation in the Services is voluntary. The state constitution, in turn, prohibits government officials from imposing sincere religious beliefs unless it is the least restrictive way to serve a compelling government interest. WIDOC violated both of these orders by issuing a blanket ban while allowing access under health and safety protocols to other types of individuals.

WILL issued a letter on April 1, demanding that WIDOC reevaluate its policy, then sued WIDOC in Jefferson County Circuit Court in May 2021 after the state agency failed to make any adjustments to its policy. Politics. Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge William Hue ordered the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to provide clergy from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee access to state correctional facilities in an effort to organize religious services for inmates in a writ of temporary mandamus issued on June 18, 2021.

Then, on July 14, 2022, the Court issued a final decision and order finding that WIDOC violated the rights of the Archdiocese and its clergy. He also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting WIDOC from reinstating the policy in the future.

Read more:

  • Memorandum Decision, July 14, 2022

  • Memorandum Decision Order, July 14, 2022

  • Writ of Provisional Mandamus, June 21, 2021

  • Complaint by WILL, May 7, 2021

  • Letter from WILL to Secretary Kevin Carr, April 1, 2021

About Charles D. Goolsby

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