A group of plaintiffs including parents and St. Ambrose Academy (and seven other diocesan schools) took legal action to contest Public Health Madison & Dane County Emergency Order #9. The Order prohibited county schools from offering in-person religious education to students in grades 3-12, both at the time the order was issued and for the indeterminate future. In-person learning is important to all children, but especially to low-income families, many of whom are served by religious schools.
The emergency order, the ninth of its kind, was issued at 5:18 p.m. on Friday, August 21, only days before St. Ambrose Academy was scheduled to reopen and a mere sixty hours before other religious schools were prepared to begin instruction. In issuing the Order, the County failed to take into account the extensive and comprehensive measures religious schools had put in place to ensure a safe reopening.
St. Ambrose Academy, like many other religious schools in the county, had spent countless hours and many thousands of dollars putting into place the safety precautions mandated in Emergency Order #8 that was issued on July 7 (which was followed by a host of additional public health documents at the county and state level). St. Ambrose, for example, has at great expense nearly doubled its facility space to ensure Public Health Madison & Dane County’s social distancing guidelines can be met.
Despite the good faith efforts many religious schools had made in the months prior to adhere to Dane County’s health guidelines to ensure the safe return of students and staff, by issuing Emergency Order #9, Dane County dealt county religious schools a crushing blow by holding them to far higher standards than other businesses.
Emergency Order #9 directly impinged on families’ rights to provide a religious education for their children in accord with the dictates of their consciences. St. Ambrose began to work with expert legal counsel to appeal for swift relief from the Order.
Because of the gifts, social media shares, and attention drawn by these original 850+ supporters and uncounted others who took part in our crowdfunding page in the days after the Order was issued, the Academy was approached by a new ally. We were pleased to welcome the support of the Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm, as co-counsel in our suit.
The Society joined Lead Counsel Misha Tseytlin of Troutman Pepper law firm in the suit before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and they pledged to offer additional financial resources to ensure that the Academy could stay in the fight until the end.