WILL, Milwaukee Archdiocese Sue WI Department of Corrections Over Unconstitutional Visitor Policy

Published on: May 7, 2021

DOC ignored WILL demand letter to revise policy that bars volunteer clergy from visiting inmates

The News: The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) and its Secretary, Kevin Carr, after the state agency refused to adjust an unconstitutional visitor policy that prevents in-person clergy visits to Wisconsin correctional facilities. WILL notified the Wisconsin DOC of the problems with the policy in a letter on April 1.

The lawsuit was filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court.

The Quote: WILL Deputy Counsel, Anthony LoCoco, said, “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.”

Background: On March 13, 2020, the DOC 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 apparently 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 one-on-one with a volunteer minister for counseling.

The current DOC policy violates both state statute and the state constitutional guarantee to the free exercise of religion. In particular, Wisconsin state law, Wis. Stat. § 301.33 (“Freedom of worship; religious ministration.”), provides in part:

  1. 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.

The DOC promised to “review” its decision to suspend volunteer entry “on a daily basis.” As of this date, the policy remains in place. WILL issued a letter on April 1, demanding the DOC reassess its policy and inform WILL of any changes by April 8, 2021. The DOC declined to update its policy.

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