CNA—Churches in Dane County, Wisconsin, will be permitted to operate at 25% capacity, it was announced Friday, after the Diocese of Madison threatened to sue if previous reopening plans were not changed.
“Emergency Order #4 makes a clarification with respect to religious services,” said a release from Dane County on Friday.
“Religious worship services will no longer be categorized as a ‘mass gathering.’ All restrictions applicable to businesses will continue to apply to religious services,” they said.
The change was announced June 5, the deadline requested by a group of lawyers representing the Diocese of Madison. Had the county not changed its course, the Diocese of Madison was prepared to file a lawsuit against Dane County and the city of Madison arguing that county reopening plans to deal with the coronavirus pandemic violated religious freedom.
“We are pleased that the County and the City have ended the unequal 50-person cap on Mass attendance,” Bishop Donald Hying of Madison said in a statement provided to CNA. “As bishop, it is my duty to ensure that our sacraments are available to the Catholic faithful, while following best practices when it comes to public health.”
Under Dane County’s previous plan, Emergency Order 3, houses of worship were capped at a 50-person attendance limit. Religious services were treated as mass gatherings, similar to a concert or festival. Other essential businesses, including shopping malls and trampoline parks, were not capped at 50 people and were permitted to operate at 25% of their capacity.
Hying noted that in this time of “deep division,” it is especially important for the Church to be free to “provide solace and comfort for all.”
The bishop previously told CNA that he did not look forward to a potential lawsuit against the county, but found it necessary to stand up for religious freedom. He further told CNA that his diocese had not been contacted when it came to the reopening plan, and that he was taken by surprise by the 50-person limit.
“We look forward to working together with the county and city to continue the reopening process in a safe, cooperative, and responsible manner,” said Hying on Friday.
Eric Rassbach, the vice president and senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and one of the signatories of the letter giving notice of the diocese’s willingness to sue, said that while he was glad the city and county “came to their senses,” he did not think it should have taken this long.
“The First Amendment protects both prayer and protest,” said Rassbach. “Putting an arbitrary numerical cap on worship services while allowing thousands to protest makes no sense from a legal or public health perspective.”
Rassbach noted that most places in the United States have already lifted most regulations on houses of worship, and said that “the few remaining holdouts should take note and come into compliance with the First Amendment.”