The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday that local health officials do not have the statutory power to close schools.
“We agree with the Petitioners and hold: (1) local health officers do not have the statutory power to close schools under Wis. Stat. §252.03; and (2) Heinrich’s Order infringes the Petitioners’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed under Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution,” the court said.
“Accordingly, those portions of the Order restricting or prohibiting in-person instruction are unlawful, unenforceable, and are hereby vacated.”
On March 24, 2020, then-Secretary-Designee of the Department of Health Services Andrea Palm issued a mandate to close all public and private schools “for purposes of [in-person] instruction and extracurricular activities.”
Two months later, Madison and Dane County Public Health Officer Janel Heinrich reiterated Palm’s mandate and closed all schools for in-person instruction, but allowed them to provide “distance learning or virtual learning.”
The petitioners argued that Heinrich’s orders exceeded her “statutory authority” and violated the right to free exercise of religion and “parents’ fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of their children,” according to The Daily Wire.
The order violated the right to freedom of religion because religious private school students were kept from “attending Mass, receiving Holy Communion at weekly Masses with their classmates and teachers, receiving the sacrament of Confession at school, participating in communal prayer with their peers, and going on retreats and service missions throughout the area,” the court ruled.
Heinrich argued that local health officers have the authority to issue school-closure orders and that her orders did not violate the Wisconsin Constitution.
The court sided with the petitioners.
“What is reasonable and necessary cannot be reasonably read to encompass anything and everything,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote.
“Nothing in the text of the statute confers upon local health officers the power to close schools. To conclude otherwise would be tantamount to striking language from the statute.”
Bradley pointed out that Heinrich had admitted that the move was not necessary to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the MacIver Institute reported.
“The order acknowledged that a ‘number of systematic reviews have found that school-aged children contract COVID at lower rates than older populations’ and that ‘[o]utbreaks and clusters among cases aged 5-17 have been rare,'” the justice wrote.
“While the Order demonstrates the availability of less restrictive alternatives and employs them for college students as well as students in grades K-2, the Order denies them to students in grades 3-12.”
Justices Rebecca Dallet and Brian Hagedorn criticized Bradley for applying constitutional analysis in the case, but Bradley pushed back and said it is “our duty to uphold the Constitution.”
“Declining to decide the constitutional question in this case would ‘shirk our duty’ to say what the supreme law of our state is,” she wrote.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.