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Wis. Legislature’s church exemption move bad public policy 

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The Wisconsin Legislature is troublingly moving forward with a proposed constitutional amendment that would exempt churches from emergency orders. 

The proposal would alter the religious freedom section of the Wisconsin Constitution, requiring all houses of worship to be exempt from emergency orders at the national, state and local levels. This would be applicable during events like severe weather, political unrest and public health emergencies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The legislative move stems from the temporary closure of public buildings during the height of the pandemic, when the death toll was rapidly rising and methods of containment were not yet fully understood. The emergency orders were made months before a vaccine was developed. (To put things in perspective, Covid-19 has caused more than 16,000 deaths in Wisconsin.)

Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order went into effect on March 24, 2020, and was in place for seven weeks. Notably, churches and other houses of worship were not included in the places that were required to shut down completely during that state order. Places that held religious gatherings were considered “essential” locations and were allowed to remain open, although indoor gatherings were limited to 10 people at a time. Multiple suggestions were given to churches to maintain attendance, such as drive-in services to serve larger congregations. It is therefore unclear why the advocates for the amendment depict the state order as an example of “governmental overreach” when protections and alternatives were provided.

Among those testifying in support of the amendment was Matt Sande, the lobbyist for Pro-Life Wisconsin, a nonprofit that opposes abortion in all circumstances, including in cases of rape and endangerment of the woman’s life. Sande claimed, “There has to be balance, not only on matters of prudential decisions, but on core constitutional rights. Short of martial law, these rights must be respected and they can’t be abridged.” The idea that there was no balance in Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order is ludicrous considering the leeway specifically given to houses of worship. No constitutional right was violated under the state order.

The companion piece to the constitutional proposal passed the Senate in November. Constitutional amendments are not subject to gubernatorial veto but the proposal must pass again with identical wordings in the 2025-27 legislative session before appearing on the ballot as a statewide referendum.

This issue is being falsely framed as a matter of “separating church from state and promoting religious freedom.” State Sen. Cory Tomczyk, a co-sponsor, has stated, “When it comes to my Wisconsin and American right to worship in the manner I want to, I don’t give a damn what the governor says.” The 2020 state order did not eliminate anyone’s right to worship. Safer at Home aimed only to contain rising Covid-19 numbers.

State Sen. Tim Carpenter correctly told Wisconsin Public Radio, “It’s really not needed. Republicans have been trying anything to get constitutional amendments on the ballot because the governor doesn’t have any say.” In 2021, Gov. Tony Evers vetoed similar legislation that would have prevented church closures amid worsening Covid-19 conditions. 

Similar legislation has passed in nine other states since 2021 with bipartisan support, including Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee. The FFRF Action Fund has more than 1,700 advocates in its home state of Wisconsin who will continue to ensure that lawmakers implement needed, evidence-based policies instead of depleting resources to advance posturing political points, such as the church superspreader amendment.

FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues.