Wisconsin Republicans pitch amendment to block church closures during emergencies

By TODD RICHMOND Associated Press

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.

“(The proposed amendment) doesn’t force anybody to do anything,” Tomczyk said. “It stops the government from interfering in our lives, simply put.”

Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch said Republicans seem to have forgotten that COVID-19 killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and 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 Sen. 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 by a reporter after the hearing adjourned whether he’ll hold a vote on the amendment, he responded by saying he hadn’t set the August 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.

Evers’ spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the amendment.