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Milwaukee archdiocese sues over pandemic prison ministry prohibition

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by Autumn Jones

Milwaukee, Wis., May 7, 2021 / 15:01 pm America/Denver (CNA).

On Friday, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections after the agency refused to adjust a policy that prevents in-person clergy visits to correctional facilities.

“Visiting prisoners is a corporal work of mercy and follows the teachings of Jesus to visit those in prison,” Sandra Peterson, communication director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said May 7. “However, our clergy and chaplains have not been able to perform this important work for more than a year, which means prisoners have been denied access to the sacraments that are crucial to our Catholic faith.”

The lawsuit alleges that the visitor policy adopted March 13, 2020 in response to COVID-19 violates the right of the archdiocese and its clerics to minister to the religious needs of prisoners. The policy—which permits visits by Department of Corrections employees, such as teachers, social workers and psychologists, as well as attorneys—does not allow inmates to attend in-person religious services led by a volunteer minister, or to receive a sacrament administered by a volunteer minister.

Inmates are also prevented from meeting one-on-one with a volunteer minister for counseling under the policy.

The policy “contains no exceptions for visits by priests who, for example, are vaccinated and/or can comply with health and safety protocols designed to prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” the suit notes. Thus for more than a year, priests have been unable “to administer sacraments that cannot be administered virtually such as the Eucharist, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick” to inmates.

“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. It is simply not permitted to indefinitely suspend constitutional and statutory rights to the free exercise of religion,” said WILL Deputy Counsel Anthony LoCoco in a release.

The suit maintains that the DOC policy violates both state statute and the state constitutional guarantee to the free exercise of religion. Wisconsin statute says that “members of the clergy of all religious faiths shall have an opportunity, at least once each week, to conduct religious services within the state correctional institutions”, and that “every inmate shall receive, upon request, religious ministration and sacraments according to the inmate’s faith”.

WILL filed a letter April 1 to demand the Department of Corrections reassess its policy by April 8. The DOC declined to update its policy. The lawsuit was filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court.

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