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Wisconsin GOP passes amendment to ban church closures during future pandemics
Conservative Christians have made it clear that public health takes a backseat to public worship
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In a remarkably short-sighted move that shows how selfish and dangerous conservatives can be, the GOP-led Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday passed an amendment to the state constitution that would allow churches to remain open even during a public health emergency.
So if another COVID-like disease began circulating, and the best way to stop the spread was to restrict public gatherings where people might be in close proximity to each other, churches would still be allowed to spread the virus because members don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves.
Specifically, the bill adds a sentence to a part of the constitution regarding freedom of religion. The current law begins, “The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed,” and if this amendment is adopted, that section would include a new clause:
… nor shall the state or a political subdivision of the state order the closure of or forbid gatherings in places of worship in response to a state of emergency at the national, state, or local level, including an emergency related to public health.
(Update: As a reader point out, the new addition literally contradicts the preceding clause about how no “preference [should] be given by law to any religious establishments…”)
In March of 2020, Gov. Tony Evers (a Democrat) issued a stay-at-home order that only allowed exceptions for “essential” activities. Going to a religious service, even though that could be done over Zoom (or through a livestream), was actually one of the exceptions! But like similarly exempted public gathering places, religious services were limited to 10 people max. It was inconvenient for those who wanted to go, sure, but the logic made sense given the goal. It’s not like religious people were treated any differently from anybody else. Theaters and athletic leagues were restricted, too.
But Republicans, fully ignorant of science and the concept of equality, treated that restriction like a form of Christian persecution. The then-conservative state Supreme Court struck down Evers’ order within two months on a 4-3 vote, and now the gerrymandered Wisconsin Senate wants to prevent any governor from being able to protect public health in the future if it might get in the way of Christians doing whatever the hell they want.
“During the pandemic, we saw places of worship forcibly closed at a time when many needed their faith communities and spiritual advisors the most,” said Sen. Cory Tomczyk (R-Mosinee), lead author of the Senate resolution.
Tomczyk was lying. Places of worship weren’t closed. They were restricted… like so many other places. Tomczyk was upset because religious people didn’t have special privileges. (I was also under the impression that God can hear prayers even when they’re offered silently or in private, but apparently, God only shows up when hundreds of people are in an enclosed space.)
It’s ironic that one of the people testifying in favor of the new amendment was the leader of a so-called “pro-life” group, proving yet again that these zealots are all for life… unless Christians want to worship during a pandemic, in which case, grandma might have to be sacrificed.
The new amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 54, passed on a party-line 21-10 vote. It would have to be approved in two consecutive legislative sessions—which, in Wisconsin, last two years each—and then be placed in front of voters in an election in order to become law. Which is to say this is several years away from becoming codified. But the threat is very real. (The State House version of the bill, AJR 60, has not yet been voted on, but I would expect it to pass as well.)
Gov. Evers vetoed a similar bill in 2021, but he doesn’t have the power to veto a proposed constitutional amendment. However, if the Wisconsin Supreme Court, now with a liberal majority, eliminates the state’s gerrymander, leading to fairer elections, it’s possible a future legislature won’t support such a change.
Still, think about what this suggested change reveals: Conservative Christians (and let’s be honest, we’re really only talking about their religion) have so little regard for the lives of other people that they believe churches of all sizes should be allowed to meet at full capacity even when an airborne virus has the potential to kill people. They believe their religious beliefs grant them automatic immunity from life-saving policies—even when the intention is to protect them, too! As FFRF Action Fund’s Senior Policy Counsel Ryan Jayne put it, “Churches do not have a right to hold superspreader events, endangering both their congregants and their neighbors.”
This is what happens when you have so little regard for science, other human beings, and respect for authority. Pastors are so selfish, or cowardly, that they would rather put their own congregations in harm’s way than accept a temporary inconvenience for the sake of the entire community. It’s appalling behavior and it’s so typical of white evangelicals and conservative Catholics who have made it clear over the past few years that their faith-based desires must be a priority for the state, even when it means others will suffer.
We see it with abortion. We see it with LGBTQ rights. The same religious zeal is evident when you look at the opposition to gun safety regulations. And now the same Jesus lovers are broadcasting their disdain for humanity with a policy change that would hurt Wisconsinites (and others!) if another virus ever threatens our safety again.
These conservatives believe public safety takes a backseat to public worship. All of us will pay the consequences for it if they get their way.