Press Release

Catholic Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin demands equal treatment from county and city officials Protests and movies treated better than church services in Madison/Dane County

Media Contact

Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

Additional Information

WASHINGTON –Global law firms Sidley Austin and Troutman Sanders, along with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sent a letter today to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison explaining that the City and County’s May 22 public health order that capped in-person worship at just 50 people is discriminatory and targets the Catholic Church for selective enforcement. Under the order, shopping malls, bars, restaurants, spas, gyms, salons, museums, movie theaters, community centers, bowling alleys, skating rinks, trampoline parks and more are not subject to the 50-person cap. Madison’s mayor has also announced that public protests are not subject to government restrictions at all. Madison/Dane County threatened to send government officials to Catholic Masses to find out how many people are there and impose $1000 fines if too many people came to church. The letter explains that Madison/Dane County’s actions violate the First Amendment and the Wisconsin Constitution.

After Madison/Dane County officials released the “Forward Dane” executive order on May 18 which listed houses of worship as “essential services” thus allowing them to resume in-person services at 25 percent capacity, the Diocese of Madison quickly put together a plan for safely reopening with rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols developed in accordance with CDC and WHO guidelines. But after the Diocese announced its careful plan, in an abrupt and inexplicable reversal, the City of Madison/Dane County added a brand-new restriction on houses of worship, limiting them to just 50 people at each religious service regardless of the size of the building. This means that some churches are held to while trampoline parks, movie theaters and virtually all other entities can operate to at least 25%.

“In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial injustice of the past week, our community is crying out for unity, for grace and for spiritual healing. We are ready and able to answer that call, but the 50-person cap has unjustly stifled our pastoral mission,” said Bishop Donald Hying, Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison. “Our Diocese has been, and remains, committed to promoting and protecting the health and safety of our fellow Madisonians, but the county and city have wrongly subordinated the spiritual needs of the community to the operations of non-essential businesses.”

Since May 22, the Madison/Dane County Health Department has multiple times called and visited Diocesan officials and parishes to inform them that surveillance teams would be sent to churches and fines of up to $1000 would be imposed for every instance in which more than 50 people were gathered for Mass.

“Madison and Dane County think mass protests, movies and malls are just fine, but churches have to be put under surveillance to make sure not too many people go,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “If it’s safe enough for thousands to shop together at malls, and to sit in a theatre for a two-hour film, it’s safe enough to spend 45 minutes safely socially distanced in worship. Madison and Dane County should end their unequal treatment of religious people.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.