Milwaukee Archdiocese Sues Over Ban on Minister Visits With Prisoners

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has not allowed religious ministers to visit with inmates in person for over a year as a Covid-19 precaution, regardless of whether the clergy members are vaccinated.

The Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee, Wis. (Image by sdmsteadtaz from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

JEFFERSON, Wis. (CN) — A conservative advocacy organization and Wisconsin clergy sued the state corrections department on Friday over a Covid-19 policy restricting ministers’ access to prisoners, claiming it violates state law.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s complaint, filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court by attorneys with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL, says the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and its secretary Kevin Carr “adopted a policy banning all volunteer religious ministers from visiting inmates in the DOC’s care” on March 13, 2020, as a precautionary measure in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The groups allege this blanket policy — which applies to all volunteer religious ministers, priests and deacons of the archdiocese but does not apply to DOC employees or professional and legal visitors — violates the constitutional and statutory rights of clergy to provide religious services to Wisconsin’s prisoners, such as conducting Catholic masses and administering sacraments like the Eucharist.

Despite less restrictive precautionary measures like temperature checks, Covid testing, masks, hygiene procedures, social distancing, outside visits and proof of vaccination being available, the complaint claims clergy have been singled out for a total ban without proving such a ban is necessary or justified.

WILL told DOC officials on April 1 that they were breaking the law with their no-visitors policy and asked the state agency to immediately reevaluate the rule and bring it into legal compliance. DOC officials responded on April 15 saying they would not be changing the policy at this time, according to Friday’s complaint.

“In sum, DOC claims the authority to indefinitely deny priests access to inmates in DOC’s care for the purpose of providing religious services,” the lawsuit states. “Besides shocking the conscience, the DOC’s draconian policy violates state statutory and constitutional law.”

Anthony LoCoco, WILL’s attorney representing the archdiocese in the legal action, said in a statement Friday that the DOC was fairly warned it was breaking the law and “it is simply not permitted to indefinitely suspend constitutional and statutory rights to the free exercise of religion.”

WILL and the clergy’s complaint asks the court to declare the no-visitors policy violates state statutes and the Wisconsin Constitution, issue a writ of mandamus immediately allowing clergy to access state correctional institutions to provide religious services, and permanently ban the DOC defendants from violating those religious rights.

A DOC representative said in an email on Friday that “the department is committed to expanding in-person visitation and volunteer programs at the earliest possible time and as soon as public health experts deem it safe to do so,” adding that it “is continuing its efforts to vaccinate persons in our care, which is a vital step toward resuming normal operations.”

The department’s Covid-19 dashboard says a total of 10,913 vaccine doses have been administered to inmates as of May 4, which would include more than half of the 19,401 inmates currently in state correctional institutions.

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