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State Supreme Court strikes down Dane Co. school closing order

Published: Jun. 11, 2021 at 9:13 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 11, 2021 at 6:48 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The state Supreme Court has struck down a Dane Co. emergency order issued last summer that, in part, closed all schools, public and private, to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The high court’s decision changes little, insofar as the current status of safety measures in the county, because an injunction issued a month after the order had stopped the county’s ability to enforce the school closing provision.

Additionally, the defendants in the case, Public Health Madison & Dane Co. (PHMDC), County Executive Joe Parisi, and its Director Janel Heinrich, had issued subsequent overriding emergency orders that did not include the provision and has since let all emergency order mandates, including those not related schools, expire.

The conservative group that filed the original action on behalf of the families, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, cheered the decision. Its President and General Counsel Rick Ensberg said that even though COVID-19 cases are dropping, “the Court’s decision provides a critical correction that ought to prevent future abuses of power in an emergency.”

The justices in the case ruled that state law did not provide local county health officials with the statutory power to close schools. The majority decision determined, based on differences in how the powers of each agency were enumerated in the Wisconsin law code, that only the state level agency, such as the Dept. of Health Services, could issued such an order.

Local agencies oversight extended to gatherings in general and health inspections of schools, the court found.

Responding to the ruling, Heinrich argued the court’s decision ends its ability to contain other outbreaks, such as measles, whooping cough, or the standard flu, within schools.

“This ruling impedes our ability to respond to any disease that might impact students, teachers, and school staff, and impacts family and friends beyond the walls of the school,” she wrote in a statement.

Heinrich added that the ruling could lead to the spread of preventable illnesses and that she was “extremely disappointed” by it.

Beyond the statutory objection, the justices ruled the First Amendment’s Religious Freedom clause barred PHMDC from enforcing the closure requirement in this case, which was brought by parents of a St. Ambrose student. The school also stated it felt in-person instruction was required for proper religious instruction.

In a statement, the school commended the victory, noting the justices supported both its statutory and constitutional arguments. Highlighting the latter, it said the ruling “recognizes the fundamental freedom parents have been given by God to educate their children as they see fit.”

According to the school, more than 800 benefactors contributed to its legal fund to help pay to litigate the case. The school’s director of enrollment and learning services specialist, Angela Hineline, said they are grateful for the decision.

“It gives us a sense of security as we move forward in working through COVID issues, that we can employ good safety measures, educate our students in-person in a safe way and pray and worship together in person that will be protected in the state of Wisconsin,” she said.

NBC15 also reached out to the Madison Metropolitan School District. MMSD Spokesperson Tim LeMonds said through the pandemic, they worked closely with local health officials to inform decision making.

“Because the district already has been operating collaboratively with local health officials and has largely followed their guidance throughout the pandemic, we do not believe this ruling will have any noticeable impact on how the district responds to a health crisis like COVID-19 in the future,” he said.

The case was decided by a four-to-three margin, with Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley writing the opinion.

clarification: This story has been amended as statements were issued by PHMDC, WILL, and St. Ambrose, respectively.

clarification: Co. Executive Joe Parisi was added as one of the defendants in the case.

correction: The story was updated to include a 4-3 opinion.

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