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The Wisconsin Supreme Court Friday ruled that local public health officials do not have the authority to close schools and that the order from Public Health Madison & Dane County last August infringed on religious rights.
The decision came one day after the county’s largest school district, Madison, ended its school year, rendering it irrelevant to the first full school year under the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the ruling helps create at least one guidepost for interpreting state statutes on the power of local health officers in an emergency.
Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote the majority opinion, with conservative colleagues Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and Justice Patience Roggensack joining in full and Justice Brian Hagedorn joining with one exception and writing a concurring opinion.
The court’s three liberal justices dissented.
Last August, as the school year approached and some area private schools had already begun the year, PHMDC issued Emergency Order No. 9, prohibiting in-person instruction for grades 3-12 at any school.
Legal challenges quickly followed, with private schools and parents pushing against PHMDC’s order and asking for an immediate injunction so they could continue in-person instruction.
The court complied, with its conservative majority barring the prohibition on in-person instruction in a 4-3 opinion by early September.
Many public school districts, including Madison, remained entirely virtual for part or most of the year, but many private schools quickly shifted back to in-person plans.
The court held oral arguments in December, but delayed its decision until Friday.
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