Wisconsin Sued for Virus Measures That Limit Religious Worship
A sign notifies customers that a market is closed to the public in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. (Photographer: Thomas Werner/Bloomberg)

Wisconsin Sued for Virus Measures That Limit Religious Worship

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(Bloomberg) -- Two Wisconsin residents are claiming in a lawsuit that the state’s “Safer at Home” social distancing order violates their constitutional rights by effectively banning religious worship and political gatherings while allowing “hundreds of customers into Costco at any given time.”

The public safety measures -- put in place to stem the rate of infections and deaths in Wisconsin during the coronavirus pandemic -- are overly intrusive and “cannot survive even basic scrutiny,” according to a complaint filed Monday with the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The suit follows similar complaints that have met with success in Kentucky and Illinois and comes a day after the U.S. Justice Department filed a statement supporting a Virginia church. In that case, the church has challenged an April 5 criminal citation it received after holding a service for 16 worshipers in a space that can accommodate 225 people. President Donald Trump has supported a number of protests against such regulations, urging demonstrators to “liberate” their states.

The Wisconsin plaintiffs said they don’t doubt the seriousness of the public health crisis or that it poses life-or-death risks to the state’s citizens, particularly the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. But the steps Wisconsin has taken to lessen those risks, “no doubt in good faith, have gone too far, needlessly infringing our most basic constitutional liberties -- to an extent that is without precedent and that would have been virtually unimaginable in a free society just two months ago,” they said in the lawsuit.

The press office for Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who is named in the suit, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Adam Laxalt, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Jere Fabick and Larry Chapman, said that ideally there should be no restrictions of any kind on religious services and that religious leaders should decide what social-distancing measures to implement in their facilities, if any.

“If a government is going to restrict the right to attend a church service at all, then they need to do it far more carefully and in a far more narrow way then was done in Wisconsin,” Laxalt, the Republican former attorney general of Nevada, said in an interview.

Attorney General William Barr on April 27 directed Eric Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, to review state and local policies to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the pandemic, the government said in a statement. The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, is also involved in the initiative.

“The Commonwealth of Virginia has offered no good reason for refusing to trust congregants who promise to use care in worship in the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and other workers to do the same,” Dreiband said of the department’s statement supporting the church.

A federal appeals court on Monday ruled that Kentucky churches can’t be stopped from holding drive-in services, while an Illinois judge ruled late last month that social distancing rules violated the liberty of a state lawmaker who sued to block them.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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