Court Orders State to Allow Milwaukee Archdiocese Ability to Conduct Services in Correctional Facilities

Published on: June 18, 2021

WILL sued in May after state agency refused to permit religious volunteers from visiting inmates

The News: Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge William Hue ordered the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WIDOC) to provide clergy of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee with access to state correctional institutions for the purpose of conducting religious services for inmates. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) sued the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in May on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee alleging the agency barred religious volunteers from legally and constitutionally protected visits to Wisconsin correctional facilities.

The writ of mandamus mandating access will be issued next week and continue while the litigation is pending.

The Quote: WILL Deputy Counsel, Anthony LoCoco said, “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. We are grateful for the Court’s action today, which will ensure that meaningful religious services can be timely offered.”

Background: On March 13, 2020, the WIDOC announced that, “out of an abundance of caution,” in order to “minimize the risk of bringing COVID-19 (Coronavirus) into [its] facilities,” “[a]ll visits, including volunteer visits, are temporarily suspended at all Department of Corrections Institutions.” With this policy in place Wisconsin inmates have at times been denied the ability to attend an in-person religious service led by a volunteer minister who shares their faith, or receive a sacrament administered by a volunteer minister such as communion, or even meet in person with a volunteer minister for counseling.

The lawsuit alleges the current WIDOC policy violates both state statute and the state constitutional guarantee to the free exercise of religion. Wisconsin state law, Wis. Stat. § 301.33 (“Freedom of worship; religious ministration.”), provides in part: “Subject to reasonable exercise of the privilege, 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. Attendance at the services is voluntary.”

WILL issued a letter on April 1, demanding WIDOC reassess its policy. On May 7, WILL sued WIDOC in Jefferson County Circuit Court after the state agency made no adjustments to their policy.

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