The Problem: The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fundamental disregard of many in our government to the religious liberty of our citizens. Far too many bureaucrats were willing to treat the right to gather with other adherents as a second-class right, behind the right to visit grocery stores and shopping malls. The double-standard was never more clear than during the summer of 2020, when some politicians participated in Black Lives Matter protests with huge groups of people while still insisting on a legal ban on gatherings for everyone else. In some instances, we saw especially obtuse examples, such as when the State of Nevada maintained gathering caps on religious gatherings while allowing the casino industry to return to normal operations. As Justice Alito said, only half joking, “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance.”
Wisconsin was sadly not exempt from some of these excesses. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee proceeded with services in over 150 of its churches, many in defiance of a mayoral shutdown order from City Mayor Tom Barrett. And the Catholic Diocese of Madison had to threaten a lawsuit before the County changed its discriminatory burden on religious services. Dane County also enforced a surprise ban on in-person education that targeted religious schools, a move the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected as violating the freedom of religion found in the state constitution.
Thankfully the era of bans on gatherings is behind us, but we are now in a new phase where religious liberty is again taking a back seat it seems. Many employers are applying invasive scrutiny to employees’ requests for religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. Other employers are making blanket denials of such exemption requests, and giving short shrift to employees’ legal rights to reasonable accommodations or alternatives. People of faith deserve better. Religious liberty is not a second-class right, but the first freedom in the First Amendment. And our Wisconsin Constitution “uses the strongest possible language in the protection of this right. It provides that the right to worship as one is convinced ‘shall never be infringed.’ . . . It is difficult to conceive of language being stronger than this.” Yet in spite of these clear constitutional commands, the right to worship was severely restricted for months on end.
The Solution: The Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill to protect houses of worship during a pandemic, limiting the power of health officers to close religious gatherings. Meeting the spiritual needs of people is just as “essential” as meeting physical needs for pharmacies and groceries. Unfortunately, Governor Evers vetoed the bill.
The Legislature similarly passed a law to ban vaccine mandates in Wisconsin, preserving people’s health freedom with a measure taken in other states. Again, Governor Evers vetoed the bill. In addition to seeing these measures become law, state government should rein in the worst excesses of local health authorities exceeding their statutory powers. In particular, the Attorney General’s office should start defending the constitutional rights of Wisconsin against overzealous bureaucrats who prioritize their politicized public health agenda over religious liberty.