For the first time in 15 months, priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will be allowed into Wisconsin’s prisons to offer Holy Mass and administer sacraments to inmates under an order signed Monday by a circuit court judge.
Clergy and other visitors have been barred from Wisconsin correctional facilities since March 2020 under a state policy aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee sued the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and its secretary, Kevin A. Carr, on May 7, 2021 in Jefferson County Circuit Court. Archdiocese attorneys argued the visitor policy infringes on constitutionally protected religious liberty and runs afoul of state statutes that guarantee clergy access to prisons.
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge William F. Hue ruled the Archdiocese of Milwaukee must be given access to state prisons once a week, effective immediately. He signed a provisional writ of mandamus compelling the Department of Corrections to grant the clergy access. The order does not apply to the other four Catholic dioceses in Wisconsin. It will remain in effect as the case proceeds in circuit court.
“The Department of Corrections cannot ignore the Legislature’s command that clergy have a privileged right of access to its facilities for purposes of ministering to the needs of Wisconsin’s inmates,” said Anthony F. LoCoco, deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which represents the archdiocese. “We are grateful for the court’s action today, which will ensure that meaningful religious services can be timely offered.”
A spokeswoman for Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki was pleased with the ruling, but cautioned it is only a first step. “While we are relieved that our clergy and chaplains will once again be able to minister to prison inmates once per week, we also recognize that this is only a temporary ruling,” said Sandra Peterson, communication director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “The archdiocese hopes the court will completely lift the Department of Corrections restrictions in its final ruling and restore the legal and freedom of religion rights of our clergy to tend to the spiritual needs of Wisconsin’s inmates.”
Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said plans were in the works for clergy access before the archdiocese petitioned for the court order. “The Department of Corrections received the order from Judge Hue today and will comply with the order,” Carr said in a statement. “DOC suspended in-person visitation due to the pandemic on March 13, 2020. The archdiocese and WILL waited nearly 15 months until May 7 to challenge that suspension. It was not until after DOC announced its intention to reopen to in-person visitors starting July 6 that the archdiocese filed this motion. We were already in the transition phase of preparing to resume in-person visitation, including volunteer visits. This order simply permits religious visits about two weeks earlier than planned.”
Judge Hue ruled that Wisconsin statutes are clear on clergy access to state prisons, denial of which “constitutes a substantial injury.” He rejected the argument that the archdiocese’s suit wasn’t filed in a timely manner.
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