MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans are trying again to block government agencies from closing churches during emergencies, this time with a constitutional amendment.
The amendment from Sen. Cory Tomczyk and Rep. 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 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.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order 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. 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 Evers’ desk in 2021 that would have barred government officials from closing or restricting access to churches during the pandemic but the governor vetoed it. Republicans introduced a similar bill last year but it failed to pass either the Senate or the Assembly. Evers almost certainly would have vetoed the measure anyway.
Republicans can do an end-run around Evers 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 Rep. Karen Hurd implored the Senate’s Committee on Licensing, Constitution and Federalism to support the proposal during a public hearing Tuesday. 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 Sen. Tim Carpenter countered that constitutional rights aren’t absolute, igniting a brief but intense argument with Tomcyzk with both of them accusing the other of insulting him.
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.
Evers’ spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the amendment.
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