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Dane County relaxes attendance cap on religious services after pushback
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Dane County relaxes attendance cap on religious services after pushback

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Churches were empty, as seen in this April 1, 2020 photo, and many offered virtual services during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Dane County is loosening restrictions on religious services that were put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus in light of a potential legal challenge, officials announced Friday. 

The move, outlined in the latest local emergency order, applies the same restrictions to religious entities that businesses had already been operating under. That means places of worship are now able to limit their capacity to 25% for services rather than cap attendance at 50 individuals or less, as was outlined under the original language.    

The change comes on the heels of legal challenges in other parts of the country that have sought relaxed attendance caps on local religious services, arguing that houses of worship were being treated unfairly compared to businesses. One high-profile case seeking to block state restrictions on attendance at those services, which made it to the U.S. Supreme Court last week, was rejected 5-4.  

The threat of a similar challenge occurring in Dane County arose this week after a Washington, D.C.-based law firm on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison sent a letter to local leaders requesting changes to the local order so “worship can resume in a safe and nondiscriminatory manner.” 

“Now that you have determined that circumstances allow the partial reopening of almost every Dane County business and other activity with appropriate safeguards, there is no valid, nondiscriminatory reason to maintain far stricter restrictions on houses of worship,” the letter, dated June 3, noted. 

While Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said Friday the request “raises a legal gray area,” he and other local officials said they wanted to avoid a legal battle when their financial resources were needed elsewhere. 

“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 a statement. 

Madison and Dane County’s restrictions on business activity is part of the local “Forward Dane” plan seeking to gradually loosen rules in a series of phases over the coming weeks and months. Currently in Phase 1, restaurants, gyms, retail stores and others are allowed to operate at 25% capacity with certain physical distancing measures in place. 

The Phase 1 order also allows indoor and outdoor gatherings; originally worship services were governed under the “mass gathering” category that caps attendance at both inside commercial facilities and outdoor gatherings to up to 50 people, while private residences would see a max of 10 individuals. 

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway defended the initial categorization of worship services as mass gatherings in a statement Friday. 

“The intent of this order was to reduce the risk of a flare-up of COVID-19 occurring in churches that could quickly overwhelm Public Health contact tracing and our healthcare systems,” she said. “I am appreciative of the number of religious denominations that are being mindful of the risk of congregating large groups in enclosed spaces right now.” 

Madison Bishop Donald Hying applauded the new emergency order, saying his duty is to ensure "Sunday Mass be available as widely as possible to the Catholic faithful, while following best practices when it comes to public health." 

“Indeed, in a time of deep division, it is more important than ever for the Church to provide solace and comfort to all, in the great tradition of American religious freedom," he added. "We look forward to working together with the County and City to continue the reopening process in a safe, cooperative, and responsible manner."

Dane County logged 789 positive COVID-19 cases, 34,899 negative ones and 29 deaths as of Thursday, statewide data compiled by the Department of Health Services showed. Across Wisconsin, there were 19,892 positive cases, 291,367 negative cases and 626 deaths, per the data.

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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