Washington D.C., Jun 14, 2021 / 17:10 pm (CNA).
The Wisconsin state supreme court ruled in favor of a Catholic school last week in its case against a local prohibition on in-person learning during the pandemic.
“It’s a big win and people should be rejoicing nationally because of the use of the state constitution to provide additional protection to the religious education of children,” one of the appellate attorneys in the case, Erick Kaardal, told CNA.
The case of St. Ambrose Academy against executives of Dane County, Wisconsin, was officially decided on June 11.
Citing dangers of the pandemic, county public health official Janel Heinrich issued an emergency order last August which prohibited in-person learning at all county schools grades 3 to 12.
St. Ambrose Academy announced last August that it and other Catholic schools were seeking the immediate revocation of the emergency order, “citing harm to ‘parents, children, and schools across the County.’” They cited “freedom of conscience” clauses in the state constitution to make their case.
St. Ambrose said it had worked with county health officials to produce a 35-page plan to reopen safely that fall, before the order was issued.
The court initially issued a preliminary injunction in September 2020, temporarily stopping the county from enforcing the order. The court’s official ruling was delivered on Friday, in a 5-3 decision in favor of the schools.
In the majority opinion,Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley ruled that “local health officers do not have the statutory power to close schools,” and said that the prohibition on in-person education “infringes the Petitioners’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion.”
Kaardal, special counsel at the Thomas More Society, told CNA on Monday that Heinrich’s policy was disappointing for many reasons, but emphasized the exemption of certain grade levels. “The University of Wisconsin-Madison could continue to meet in-person if it wanted to,” he said. “So, it seemed that the policy didn’t make sense at a lot of levels.”
Kardaal said the “big message for Catholic schools across the country” is that the U.S. constitution and the state constitutions protect their right to exist and to operate according to their religious tradition.
“We need to be resourceful as Catholics to make sure to use the courts to protect ourselves when the government overreaches and tries to close down, modify, alter, or change our Catholic schools,” he told CNA.
In the interview with CNA, Kaardal said that Friday’s decision provides a model for other courts to follow.
“The Wisconsin supreme court was very resourceful in finding a way to protect Wisconsin religious school students and their parents and protect that decision-making process,” he said.
Kaardal compared the significance of the St. Ambrose Academy case to the case of the Brooklyn diocese against New York state pandemic restrictions.
The U.S. Supreme Court said last November that New York state restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic were a violation of First Amendment protections of religious exercise.
“That was one big case,” Kardaal said, referring to the high court’s ruling in favor of the Diocese of Brooklyn. “And I think this is the second big case, out of the Wisconsin supreme court, saying you can’t shut down Catholic schools during a pandemic.”
Kaardal told CNA that the Wisconsin case is memorable because “it basically, in a blanket way says during a pandemic you can’t close down religious schools – you got to find another way.”