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Dane County Officials Alter Public Health Restrictions To Avoid Legal Fight With Catholic Diocese

Churches Allowed To Hold Services Up To 25 Percent Capacity Under New Emergency Order

The silhouette of a cross on a Catholic church
Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

Churches in Dane County are now allowed to hold in-person services up to 25 percent of their capacity.

Public Health of Madison and Dane County announced an updated emergency order to slow the spread of COVID-19 on Friday. The change comes days after officials received a letter from a law firm hired by the Catholic Diocese of Madison, claiming the county’s restrictions unfairly limited the size of religious services.

In a press release announcing the new emergency order, County Executive Joe Parisi said the county wanted to avoid “spending tens of thousands of dollars on costly legal proceedings” in order to continue its response to the pandemic.

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“Basic life needs — food, shelter, and clothing — are in such high demand in our community given the current pandemic, so it’s hard to imagine the best use of parishioner or taxpayer dollars right now is in a court room,” Parisi said in the statement.

The health department said it “strongly recommends” faith and spiritual organizations continue virtual services.

In the letter sent Wednesday, the Catholic Diocese of Madison’s attorneys said the church “has no wish for litigation or an adversarial relationship with civil authorities.” The law firm argued religious organizations were singled out in the emergency order by having their “everyday operation” automatically designated as mass gatherings.

The county’s new emergency order makes religious services subject to all restrictions put on businesses, including limiting capacity to 25 percent. All events categorized as mass gatherings will continue to be capped at 50 people.

Bishop Donald J. Hying, head of the Catholic Diocese of Madison, said in an emailed statement that the church was pleased with the department’s decision to change the emergency order.

“We look forward to working together with the County and City to continue the reopening process in a safe, cooperative, and responsible manner,” Hying said in the statement.