Wisconsin Supreme Court: local health departments have no power to shut schools in emergencies

by Karen Faulkner, Correspondent

(Worthy News) – Delivering a victory to private and religious schools, the ruled Friday that, while the state’s Department of Health does have legislated power to shut schools in emergency situations like the pandemic, local health authorities do not have that power, Fox6 reports. The majority court gave the ruling in a 4-3 decision.

The lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) on behalf of five private schools and eight families in Dane County, School Choice Wisconsin Action, and the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, Fox6 said.

The case concerned the constitutionality of a Dane county health department order which shut down in-person classes for grades 3-12 at all public and private schools.
Under state law, local health departments may do what is “reasonable and necessary” to protect the public against an emergency like the pandemic, Fox6 said. However, the Wisconsin law does not give specific authority to county health departments to close schools.

Giving the court’s ruling, Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote that the law which grants emergency powers to local health departments “cannot be reasonably read as an open-ended grant of authority.”

In a statement about the decision, WILL president Rick Esenberg said: “Even as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, the court’s decision provides a critical correction that ought to prevent future abuses of power in an emergency.”

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