MADISON, Wisconsin, June 15, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — Private schools in Dane County, Wisconsin, retain their right to remain fully open, despite the ban on in-person education placed on them by the Public Health Officer of Madison and Dane County.
The so-called emergency order, which closed all public and private schools for in-person learning due to COVID-19, was issued in August 2020 by Janel Heinrich — just in time before schools were scheduled to reopen. Three plaintiff groups — represented by the Thomas More Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and Veterans Liberty Law — took legal action at the Wisconsin Supreme Court and requested the justices to prevent Dane County from enforcing the order. The court then issued a temporary injunction, which allowed schools to remain open on September 1. The case was consolidated by the plaintiff groups and filed for a December 8 hearing.
On June 11, 2021, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of the schools, citing Article 1, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution. “We agree with the petitioners and hold: (1.) local health officers do not have the statutory power to close schools under the Wisconsin Statute 252.03 (2.) Heinrich’s Order infringes the Petitioners’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion granted under Article 1, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution.”
The Defendants presented their case based on the schools’ freedom to practice religion, guaranteed by the State and National Constitutions. According to Catholic World Report, Attorney Joseph Voiland, representing parent Sara James, said: “Virtual learning is not the practice of her faith or her children’s faith. It needs to be in person because she believes her children need to be in person with other children as part of the Body of Christ. That is her belief. Switching to virtual education doesn’t simply change the venue — it changes the entire education.”
In a press release on the case, Thomas More Society Special Counsel Erik Kaardal said: “This has been an overreach of major proportions by a local health official who ignored the fundamental constitutional right to the free exercise of religion for parents, students, and school personnel by ordering these institutions to shut down and prohibiting in-person education. It was a slap in the face to educational choice, an affront to families who believe that children should be in school, and a direct violation of parental rights.”
Those private schools in Dane County which chose to remain open throughout the entire 2020-2021 academic year, did not experience an onslaught of COVID cases. According to Catholic World Report, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools Michael Lancaster said: “Overall, school has been going remarkably well. The fact that there has been no transmission in schools suggests that all the mitigation factors are working. Parents have also been playing a critical role as they have been tracking symptoms and keeping children home if they show any sign of illness.”
Fr. Scott Jablonski, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish in Cross Plains said his school had seen “a few isolated cases with students and a couple of teachers who contracted Covid … on the whole, it has been a successful year … students have greatly benefited from the ability to be in person for the vast majority of the year.”
In celebrating the schools’ victory, attorney Misha Tseytlin, who represented St. Ambrose and other Dane County Catholic schools, said: “I am deeply grateful that the Supreme Court has now definitively held that Dane County acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally in attempting to close our schools last fall to in-person instruction, including religious instruction … The Wisconsin Constitution gives broad protections to the religious liberty of Wisconsinites, and the Supreme Court has now made clear that those protections apply in both good times and challenging times.”
Executive Director of St. Ambrose Academy, Joan Carey, pointed to the religious significance of the crucial dates in the successful case hearing.
“Our plea for upholding the right to educate our children as we see fit was presented before the court on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and our victory was declared on the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” she said. “Our school strives daily to bring students to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We are here to guide them to form their hearts like those of Jesus and Mary. God’s timing for this court case couldn’t have been more perfect.”