Wisconsin Supreme Court rules Dane Co. order closing schools was unconstitutional

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Supreme Court is ruling in a 4-3 decision that Public Health Madison & Dane County’s emergency order closing all schools for in-person instruction was unconstitutional.

Emergency Order #9 shut down in-person instruction for grades 3-12 in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. A group of parents and private schools challenged the order in court, arguing PHMDC director Janel Heinrich did not have the authority under Wisconsin state law to shut down all schools — including private schools — and that the order violated their religious freedoms.

The state Supreme Court agreed in a decision filed Friday. In the majority opinion written by Justice Rebecca Bradley, the court ruled “those portions of the Order restrictiong or prohibiting in-person instruction are unlawful, unenforceable, and are hereby vacated.”

While Dane County no longer has an emergency health order in effect, the court’s decision could affect what public health departments are allowed to do in the future if there is another pandemic or public health emergency.

Emergency Order #9 was issued on August 21, 2020, just a few days before the start of the new school year for many schools. One day later, parent Sara Lindsey James, who has two kids at a private school in Madison, filed a lawsuit challenging the order, saying it was her “sincerely-held religious belief that it is essential for her children to receive a faith-based education.”

Other private schools later joined on or filed their own suits, which the Court later consolidated into a single case.

On September 10, the Court issued an injunction, allowing those schools to resume in-person instruction. In that decision, the Court said “overriding the choices of parents and schools, who also undoubtedly care about the health and safety of their teachers and families, intrudes upon the freedoms ordinarily retained by the people under our constitutional design.”

The injunction allowed those schools to teach in-person until the Court made its final ruling. The justices heard arguments in the case in December before making its ruling Friday.

In a statement issued Friday morning, PHMDC director Janel Heinrich said she was “extremely disappointed” in the ruling.

“This decision hinders the ability of local health officers in Wisconsin to prevent and contain public health threats for decades to come,” Heinrich said. “This ruling impedes our ability to respond to any disease that might impact students, teachers and school staff, and impacts family and friends beyond the walls of the school.”

Heinrich says the ruling also means public health departments will no longer have the ability to contain outbreaks of other diseases like measles, whooping cough, or the flu.

“Despite this ruling, Public Health Madison & Dane County will continue to provide guidance and recommendations for school districts in the county and will continue using all available tools to slow the spread if disease,” Heinrich said.

You can read the Court’s full opinion on the case below.