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Bishop Morlino (copy)

Bishop Robert C. Morlino of the Diocese of Madison speaks during a visit to St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo in August.

I don’t begrudge Bishop Robert Morlino speaking his mind or his efforts to implement his conservative brand of Catholicism in the Madison Diocese. It’s a religiously free country, after all, and if you don’t like the shepherd, you aren’t obligated to be part of the flock.

But how out of touch does a public figure have to be to appear at a free, public talk at a taxpayer-supported public venue and ask that the other free citizens who show up — including members of the press — refrain from taking his photo or recording what he has to say?

And then, once that request is denied, to stalk off to a private venue where the information that gets out can be more tightly controlled?

It’s enough to make this follower of Jesus kneel down and pray for the salvation of the First Amendment.

Diocese spokesman Brent King said Morlino was expecting his appearance Wednesday at UW-Platteville, on “Why Does Evil Exist?”, to be more of a lecture before college students and less of a public speech.

And, “of course, he wants to limit distractions to allow for that scholarly engagement and positive learning experience,” he said.

Which is not entirely dissimilar to the president visiting a public elementary school and asking reporters to excuse themselves so that he can discuss the finer points of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” with a bunch of 5-year-olds in private.

The spiritual leader of 283,000 Wisconsin Catholics is a big deal, in other words, and worthy of media coverage in a variety of settings — especially given that his 11-year reign in a generally liberal diocese has not been without controversy.

His presence adds “another whole level of importance” to an event, said UW-Platteville political science professor John Rink.

“That being the case, you can’t complain when someone takes a picture of you and writes down what you say,” said Rink, who told me his family had drifted away from Platteville’s St. Mary parish and that he has some sympathy for Morlino’s critics.

To be sure, Morlino had reason to be worried that maybe some of his documenters wouldn’t be entirely friendly.

The pastoral changes he’s implemented in Platteville have gotten a lot of push-back from parishioners, and parishes have seen membership decline as a result. Prior to his talk, there was also a small demonstration against him by about 10 people outside Doudna Hall, where the event was originally scheduled.

Charlie Clark, who was one of the 10, said they didn’t chant but held signs and whistled the hymn “All Are Welcome.”

Four of them went inside to hear Morlino speak, according to his wife and fellow demonstrator, Joyce Clark, put their signs up against a wall so others could see them, and sat down to listen. She said they had no intention of causing a ruckus.

“He had every right to be there,” she said of Morlino.

Morlino didn’t give Steve Prestegard, editor of the Platteville Journal, the same welcome.

The bishop didn’t know Prestegard was a reporter when he started snapping photos, but was worried he was associated with the demonstrators, King said. Once Prestegard identified himself, the bishop asked him to leave, and Prestegard said no.

“If a group had not organized to disrupt the educational objective of the evening, and had the bishop learned of Mr. Prestegard’s presence in a slightly different context, the lecture would have undoubtedly proceeded as planned and on campus,” King said.

For the record, public events at UW System facilities can’t be closed to the public. Morlino’s no-photos stance is also ironic given that Joyce Clark said the demonstrators themselves were photographed by an audience member outside the lecture hall. The photographer agreed to delete the photos, she said, after one of her fellow demonstrators asked Morlino to intervene, and he did.

King verified that Morlino asked the photographer to delete the photos, but didn’t know who might have asked him to take them in the first place. Messages I left with the priest at St. Augustine University Parish were not returned.

Two students who attended Morlino’s speech told a State Journal reporter that they backed his decision to ask Prestegard to leave, and Prestegard told me Morlino was applauded as he left after deciding to move the event to the diocese-owned St. Augustine.

But Rink said he suspects most UW-Platteville students wouldn’t feel the same way, and King acknowledged Friday that Prestegard was “well within his own rights” to refuse to leave when the bishop asked him to. King has also reached out to the reporter “to look for an opportunity where the bishop and he might have an opportunity to meet.”

That’s one of the nice things about Christianity: It’s never too late for a come-to-Jesus moment.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.