Dane County changes 50-person cap on religious services

Published: Jun. 5, 2020 at 10:31 AM CDT
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Facing a lawsuit from the Catholic Diocese of Madison, Dane County will change its restrictions regarding how many people are allowed to attend religious services.

Earlier this week, a law firm retained by the Diocese, Sidley Austin LLP,

the county over the 50-person cap on religious services imposed by Phase 1 of the Forward Dane Co. plan, calling it discriminatory.

The letter noted that prior to Phase 1 of the plan, which is designed to allow the county to slowly reopen following the coronavirus pandemic, religious institutions were considered essential services and the limit was set at 25 percent capacity.

Phase 1 changed that to a hard cap of 50 people, which the Diocese claimed would leave some of its churches at less than five percent capacity. Meanwhile, mass gatherings in movie theaters and gyms, among other business, must abide by a 25-percent capacity but no cap on the number of people, according to the order.

“Certainly grateful for the cooperation of our local government officials, but also it’s clear it’s a matter of religious freedom as well," said Madison Diocese Bishop Donald Hying.

On Friday, Dane County officials agreed to

on religious services to 25 percent of capacity. They said the change was made in order to avoid a costly legal battle. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi explained going ahead with the change will mean the county can use the "tens of thousands of dollars" it would have spent on the case for helping families affected by COVID-19 and the associated economic impacts.

“Basic life needs – food, shelter, and clothing – are in such high demand in our community given the current pandemic, so it’s hard to imagine the best use of parishioner or taxpayer dollars right now is in a court room,” he said.

Public Health Madison & Dane County Director Janel Heinrich defended the original 50-person cap, saying her agency's efforts to contain coronavirus has been "neutral and even-handed."

“These orders were put in place for a reason – we are in the midst of a public health emergency and we are going to do all we can to reduce the risk of public infection,” she continued.

PHMDC added that it continues to recommend to religious institutions that they hold their services virtually at this time, although Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway did note that she is "appreciative of the number of religious denominations that are being mindful of the risk of congregating in enclosed spaces right now."

Hying said they will continue to implement health precautions and offer virtual services for people to view.

“My hope would be that we continue to gradually open up in a way that is safe, moderate, but that we come to a point of confidence as the pandemic recedes that we can do this in a safe way that is respectful for the needs of the community and being available for our spiritual needs," he said.