Scott Bauer
Covering Wisconsin politics and news
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Judge rules against Wisconsin prisons over visitation policy

July 15, 2022 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge ruled against the state prison system on Thursday, saying its COVID-19 visitor policy that barred Catholic clergy from meeting with inmates for more than a year violated state law and the state constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee filed a lawsuit in 2021 demanding state corrections officials relax their COVID-19 protocols and allow ministers to visit inmates. The policy was in place from March 13, 2020, until June 21, 2021.

The archdiocese alleged that the Department of Corrections’ policy prevented clergy from the archdiocese from meeting in-person with inmates to provide spiritual guidance, communion and penance, violating a state law that grants clergy of all faiths weekly visits with prisoners and inmates’ constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Attorneys and DOC employees such as psychologists and social workers were allowed to see inmates under the policy if the visitors followed health and safety protocols such as temperature checks, COVID-19 tests and wearing masks.

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Jefferson County Circuit Judge William Hue ruled in favor of the archdiocese, saying the Department of Corrections did not give proper consideration to religious interests in denying clergy access for more than 450 days. He issued an injunction barring the department from reinstituting the policy.

The law requires that the prison system allow clergy into the prisons at least once a week to conduct services, the judge ruled.

Department spokesman John Beard reacted to the ruling by defending the visitation policy, which he said was designed to keep the more than 20,000 inmates safe.

“Since vaccines have become widely available, our department began allowing in-person visitations some time ago now, including visitations by members of clergy,” Beard said.

He said the ruling and its implications were still still being reviewed. He did not say if the department would appeal.

The conservative law firm the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the lawsuit.

“This is a good day for religious liberty in Wisconsin,” said WILL attorney Anthony LoCoco. “Department of Corrections bureaucrats may not simply disregard the statutory and constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s clergy or relegate those rights to second-class status. This decision will help ensure that officials across state government put the religious rights of Wisconsinites first in the future rather than last.”