Wisconsin Republicans pitch amendment to block church closures during emergencies

Church interior
Church interior(KBTX)
Published: Jul. 18, 2023 at 10:09 AM CDT
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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 co-sponsors 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.

The Senate Committee on Licensing, Constitution and Federalism was set to hold a public hearing on the amendment Tuesday. The hearing clears the way for a committee vote on whether to pass the proposal on to the full Senate for a floor vote.

Senate approval would send the measure to the Assembly. Approval there would keep the amendment alive until the 2025-26 legislative session, when the process would start over again. Passage during that session would trigger a statewide vote.

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.