Phil Ruge-Jones

Despite a recent ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, area churches will remain closed for at least the near future.

The court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ coronavirus safer-at-home order Wednesday, ruling that his administration overstepped its authority when it extended the mandate for another month without consulting legislators.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department issued a COVID-19 Prevention and Control Order Thursday. The order continues until at least May 28 and does not permit mass gatherings of more than 10 people. Places of worship are exempt from the mass gathering limitations but still must follow public health guidelines.

Wisconsin bishops belonging to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a message Thursday in response to the Supreme Court ruling urging churches to follow public health advice.

“Nothing has changed in our level of concern about contracting and spreading the coronavirus via worship and other gatherings in our churches,” the message reads. “The court decision was based on a contested legal point, and not on any change of the need for caution and safety that the pandemic has brought upon us … In the midst of confusion after the court’s ruling, we ask that you remain steadfast in taking precautions to not contract or spread the virus.”

Phil Ruge-Jones, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, said Grace Lutheran will not hold in-person worship in the near future and will continue streaming services on its YouTube page. Ruge-Jones said churches are taking proper precautions and don’t want to reopen too soon, particularly because many members are 60 and older and more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

The Wisconsin Council of Churches released a response Thursday as well. The WCC was formed in 1947 and “is a network of 20 Christian traditions and faith-based organizations committed to working and praying together,” according to its website.

WCC members include the Episcopal Diocese of Eau Claire and the Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse, which includes the Chippewa Valley.

“The Supreme Court decision doesn’t change the health conditions in our communities, the availability of testing or of equipment to protect medical personnel, nor does it change our recommendations that churches should abstain from gathering in physical space for some time,” said Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director of the WCC.

Catholic churches in the Diocese of La Crosse will not hold mass until at least May 31. Bishop William Patrick Callahan released a letter Thursday explaining that decision.

“I, like most of you, have longed for this return to some resemblance of normalcy, but I am also responsible for the safety of all who enter our Churches and participate at the Mass (including our priests),” Callahan wrote. “The coronavirus is real and has severe consequences for those infected by it, particularly those of advanced years and those with underlying health conditions.”

Callahan said parishes are not properly prepared to host large gatherings.

“Many, if not most, of our parishes are not ready to return to the public celebration because we do not have the proper supplies to open with safety,” Callahan wrote. “The scarcity of hand sanitizer and disinfectants in addition to many other proper supplies will greatly limit our efforts. We also need time for pastors to recruit and train non-vulnerable volunteers so that our return may include ushers who will ensure proper social distancing, parking lot attendants, and other helpers. Simply to open the doors without a structured plan in place hoping that people do the right thing would be irresponsible of us all.

“Each county will be responsible to make its own orders based on the local circumstances in that county. Regrettably, therefore, I cannot make a decree for the whole of the Diocese of when things will definitely be open.”

Callahan said worship services will return only when the proper supplies to deal with COVID-19 are available; training of sufficient and non-vulnerable volunteers has occurred; and the 25% of occupancy standards will be kept along with social distancing requirements.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Wisconsin Council of Churches was recently formed. It was officially incorporated in 1947.