Wisconsin Republicans are trying again to block government agencies from closing churches during emergencies, this time with a constitutional amendment. Critics call the proposal a politically motivated Christian Nationalist effort that seeks to enshrine the rights of Conservative churches over the lives of Wisconsin residents.
The amendment from state Senator Cory Tomczyk and state Representative Ty Bodden would bar any state or local government agency or subdivision from closing or limiting gatherings in places of worship in response to a national, state or local emergency, including public health emergencies.
A number of other GOP-dominated states have passed similar legislation, including Arizona, Florida, North Dakota, and South Carolina.
“Places of worship for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or any other practicing religions should not be closed by any level of government at any time; doing so interferes with religious practice and undermines the foundation of our state and nation,” Bodden and other Assembly Republicans wrote in a May memo seeking cosponsors for the amendment.
The stay-at-home order by Governor Tony Evers as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020 forced nonessential businesses to shut down and limited the size of indoor gatherings, including worship services. The effort followed Federal guidelines to save millions of American lives during the unprecedented modern health crisis.
Republicans persuaded a conservative-leaning state Supreme Court to strike down the order, but they want to ensure no officials can ever limit religious gatherings again.
The GOP pushed a bill to the Governor’s desk in 2021 that would have barred government officials from closing or restricting access to churches during the pandemic, but Governor Evers vetoed it. Republicans introduced a similar bill last year but it failed to pass either the Senate or the Assembly. Governor Evers almost certainly would have vetoed the measure anyway.
Republicans can do an end-run around the Governor with a constitutional amendment, however. Such amendments must pass two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum to take effect. The governor plays no role in the process.
Bodden, Tomcyk, and Republican state Representative Karen Hurd implored the Senate’s Committee on Licensing, Constitution, and Federalism to support the proposal during a public hearing on July 18. All of them told the committee that limiting religious gatherings violated freedom of religion guarantees in both the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions.
Hurd said limiting religious gatherings amounts to “an assault that disrupts the very underpinnings of this vital freedom (of religion).”
Democratic state Senator Tim Carpenter countered that constitutional rights are not absolute, igniting a brief but intense argument with Tomcyzk.
Democratic Senator Bob Wirch said Republicans seem to have forgotten that COVID-19 killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and Governor Evers was forced to make difficult decisions to protect people’s health.
The people of Wisconsin showed they agreed with the governor when they reelected him last year, Wirch said.
Peter Bakken, public policy coordinator for the Wisconsin Council of Churches, told the committee that churches met worshippers’ needs in different ways during the pandemic. He said the level of restrictions depends on the situation at hand and trying to limit options before a crisis occurs would be unwise.
The committee’s chairperson, Republican Senator Andre Jacque, appeared skeptical about the amendment. Government officials clearly ignored existing freedom of religion guarantees in the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions and could simply ignore the amendment, too, he said.
Committee approval would clear the way for a full vote on the Senate floor. Jacque told committee members that the panel will meet sometime in August to vote on a number of measures but he didn’t say which ones.
Asked after the hearing adjourned whether he would hold a vote on the amendment, Jacque responded by saying he had not set the agenda yet. Jacque said he supports the amendment “in concept” but he wants to be careful about any constitutional changes.
Anti-abortion groups Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Family Action have registered in support of the amendment, according to the state Ethics Commission. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference has registered as neutral on the proposal. No groups have registered in support.