Wisconsin diocese sues state corrections department over COVID-19 restrictions
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Wisconsin diocese sues state corrections department over COVID-19 restrictions

The Archdiocese of Wisconsin filed suit Friday against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC), alleging that the department’s COVID-19 policy restricting ministers’ access to prisoners violates state law.

To address COVID-19 concerns, the Wisconsin DOC adopted a policy temporarily suspending all visits. This blanket ban also prevents all volunteer religious ministers from visiting inmates. There are no exceptions for vaccinated clergy or for circumstances where religious services cannot be conducted virtually and need to be in person. As a result, clergy have been unable to visit inmates to provide religious services for over a year.

According to the complaint filed Friday, this policy allegedly violates the statutory and constitutional rights of the diocese. The DOC has allegedly allowed employees and other visitors to enter facilities while following health and safety protocols when remote options were not feasible. However, religious ministers have allegedly been prohibited from visiting inmates in person to administer religious services, such as the Roman Catholic sacrament of Penance, that cannot be administered through video or phone calls.

The complaint alleges that this prohibition violates Wisconsin Statute § 301.33, under which clergy are given the right to conduct religious services within state correctional institutions at least once a week. This prohibition also allegedly violates Wisconsin Constitution art. I, § 18, which protects the freedom to worship.

Among other remedies, the diocese is asking the court to issue a writ of mandamus requiring the DOC to allow clergy members to access state correctional institutions.