Wisconsin churches threatened with $1K fines if they violate 50-person service limit

Brian Dulli
Priest Brian Dulli of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cottage Grove speaks during a demonstration outside the City-County Building in Madison, Wisconsin on May 29, 2020. |

Churches in Dane County, Wisconsin, were allegedly threatened last week with $1,000 fines if they hold in-person services that are attended by over 50 people or exceed 25% of their buildings’ capacity. In response, dozens of Catholics demonstrated outside the state capitol last Friday. 

However, local officials say they are seeking “voluntary” compliance while under Phase one of the county’s reopening plan. 

According to Fox6Now politics reporter Jason Calvi, several priests in the state capital, Madison, claim that local health officials warned them about the potential fine if they have over 50 people attend services on Pentecost Sunday or if they exceed the capacity limits set by a county stay-at-home order. 

NBC 15 reports that Priest Greg Ihm of the Diocese of Madison posted a copy of a letter he received on social media, allegedly stating in a since-removed post that there was a fear “government watchers” would be present at services. 

“This week, the Diocese of Madison was contacted by Public Health Madison and Dane County and informed that if our churches in Dane County do not comply with the 50-person limit on Section 2 of Emergency Order #3, the individual churches would be fined $1,000 per violation, per Section 9 of the order,” the letter, shared on Twitter by Calvi, reads. 

“It was made clear that government watchers would be present at parishes, in order to cite offending churches.”

The letter explains that Public Health Madison and county officials contacted a “number of Catholic Parishes in Dane County to inform them of the 50-person limit and any violation thereof.” 

“As such, the Diocese of Madison, under grave protest, now is forced to direct Catholic churches and oratories in Dane County to comply with the 50-person limit for religious services, solely for the reason to avoid a citation and punitive enforcement,” the letter reads. 

In response to the threat from local officials, nearly 200 Catholic leaders reportedly marched in protest last week in Madison from the capitol building to the City-County Building. 

According to The Catholic World Report, the “Rosary rally” was organized by two priests in the diocese named Brian Dulli and Richard Heilman. 

The procession was led by four men carrying a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. 

“You tried to pull a fast one, and we are not afraid,” Dulli, the priest of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cottage Grove, said during the demonstration. “We’re not interested in complying any longer with unjust orders.” 

Dulli contended that “every person has the choice not to be participating in evil.”

“We can say, ‘Enough!’” Dulli said. “We don’t need to use a pandemic as a thin excuse to suppress church, to put arbitrary rules in place.”

City of Madison Assistant City Attorney Marci Paulsen defended the city’s gathering restrictions.

He told NBC15 that houses of worship are being treated the same as other essential businesses under city and county’s stay-at-home order that was issued in mid-May. 

Additionally, Madison Public Health told the news station that the public health department is seeking voluntary compliance and has not issued any citation to organizations or businesses. 

"There are no 'government watchers' who will be policing any business or religious entity,” the department wrote in an email statement. “In the shared spirit of keeping our friends, neighbors, and loved ones well, we ask everyone to identify ways to comply with these orders to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.”

The order states that all places where mass gatherings occur — whether that be a church, concert hall or movie theatre — are to be limited to 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever is less. 

A "mass gathering" is defined as a “planned event with a large number of individuals in attendance,” according to the "Forward Dane" order.

Phase one of Dane County’s reopening plan went into effect on May 26 and will remain in effect until Public Health Madison & Dane County officials determine that the criteria to implement the second phase have been met. 

On May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down a statewide stay-at-home order enacted by Gov. Tony Evers that closed some businesses and institutions in order to curb the spread of coronavirus. The decision led a number of counties and municipalities to adopt their own stay-at-home orders. 

“Because the court's decision addressed only DHS's authority, ... it is not directly controlling on powers of local authorities,” Attorney General Josh Kaul wrote in a statement

Across the nation, churches have filed a lawsuit against state and local orders that have restricted or, in some cases, banned in-person religious services in an attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19. 

Worship gatherings have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks within congregations and communities across the country and globe. But some churches contend that they are practicing social distancing guidelines and should be allowed to hold services as part of their First Amendment right to assemble in worship. 

Some governments are easing restrictions on worship services as they advance in their reopening plans. 

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