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Wisconsin Sued for Barring Clergy Visits to Prisoners

— May 8, 2021

A conservative legal group has filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, which had prevented prisoners from meeting clergy amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

According to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the lawsuit was filed late last week by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and attorneys from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. The complaint alleges that the Department of Corrections instituted a policy which prohibited state prisoners from receiving visitors from March 2020 onward.

While the policy was intended to mitigate and curb the spread of COVID-19, it allegedly made it difficult for inmates to meet with priests, pastors, and other religious figures.

The lawsuit states that, more than a year later, the Department of Corrections is still refusing to allow prisoners to meet clergy, regardless of their vaccination status.

In some cases, the department has refused to let inmates attend virtual services, including Eucharist, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has since claimed that the state is violating prisoners’ constitutional rights. It also has argued that the Department of Corrections’ policy is unlawful, since the agency allows attorneys, social workers, teachers, and psychologists to visit inmates.

The lawsuit suggested that the department institute proper health controls for clergy, such as temperature checks, mask requirements, and COVID tests.

Jail cell; image by Ichigo121212, via Pixaby, CC0.
Jail cell; image by Ichigo121212, via Pixaby, CC0.

“The DOC cannot make the considerable showing necessary to justify such a restriction, because regardless of whether combatting COVID-19 qualifies as a compelling interest, less restrictive alternatives are available,” the suit said.

The Journal Sentinel notes that, shortly before Easter, the the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty asked Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr to permit Catholic inmates to meet priests for confession. However, Carr and the department notified WILL that it was not willing to change its visitation policy.

According to WILL, Wisconsin’s COVID visitation policy violates the rights of prisoners and clergy alike.

“The Wisconsin Department of Corrections was warned it is violating the law by prohibiting inmates from meeting in-person with volunteer priests and other religious ministers,” WILL Deputy Counsel Anthony LoCoco said in a statement. “It is simply not permitted to indefinitely suspend constitutional and statutory rights to the free exercise of religion.”

However, the Department of Corrections maintains that it is doing everything within its power to restore clergy visitation rights to inmates.

Agency spokesman John Beard said that Wisconsin 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.

“The department,” Beard added, “is continuing its efforts to vaccinate persons in our care, which is a vital step toward resuming normal operations.”


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