MADISON — Following an outcry from furious communities of faith, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a press release Thursday clarifying his administration’s earlier “clarifications” banning outdoor church services.
Evers press release, according to the governor’s office was sent to “reiterate” that “churches and religious entities are considered essential” and that they can conduct outdoor services in “parking lots with congregants staying in cars, avoiding person-to-person contact.”
That’s a reversal from what local health departments around the state have been telling places of worship based on guidance from the Evers administration. A “Clarification … Regarding Religious Services” sent to some churches bluntly explained, ““faith-based organizations or places of worship” are not “essential.”
“The intent of the order is to limit gatherings of people and person-to-person contact in an effort to protect the health and safety of all Wisconsinites by slowing the spread of COVID-19,” the notice states.
Documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin note the guidance came from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, contradicting a Wisconsin Legislative Council opinion. In a memo, the nonpartisan council wrote that under Evers’ emergency orders “it is permissible for a religious service to be held outside, including a drive-up service, as long as there is compliance with certain restrictions specified in the orders. If the religious service is held in an unconfined outdoor space, there is no limit to the number of individuals that may attend at any one time.”
Despite the press release from Evers’ office Thursday afternoon, DHS’s website still displayed the following message with no further clarifications: “At the direction of Governor Tony Evers and under the authority of Wis. Stat. § 252.02(3), the Department of Health Services (DHS) orders all nonessential gatherings of 10 people or more be cancelled, postponed, or closed statewide. This order includes places of worship and religious gatherings.
Sen. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon) said it has been an unnecessarily “confusing 24 hours” for places of worship in Wisconsin.
“How this went down screams of hostility toward religion, and it screams of hostility toward the First Amendment and the free exercise thereof,” Craig said.
Falls Baptist Church in Menomonee Falls plans to continue with its drive-in Easter service after being told Wednesday that doing so would have violated Evers’ edict. Lakeview Church in Stoughton was told by the Dane County Department of Health that it would have to cancel its drive-in service for Easter Sunday. The outdoor event is back on.
“When Gov. Evers changed his mind about changing his mind, we announced this afternoon that we would put it back on. The people are excited,” said Pastor Andrew Fuqua.
“When we first got the news (of the cancelation) it didn’t make any sense at all. Jesus isn’t quarantined,” the pastor said, adding that he was amazed by the outpouring of support from people who reached out to their representatives to assist us.
“I think prayer made the biggest difference. We had representatives that don’t even represent our district saying they wanted to help,” Fuqua said.
Evers press release reiterates that his Safer at Home order is “enforceable” by law enforcement officials. “However, the governor’s office has not asked law enforcement to supervise or take enforcement steps against religious gatherings,” the press release states.