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Court: Wisconsin health departments can’t close schools

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday that local health departments do not have the authority to close schools due emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.

The conservative majority of the court, in a 4-3 decision, also ruled that a school closure order issued last year by Public Health Madison & Dane County infringed on religious rights.

The ruling is yet another victory for conservatives who challenged both state and local orders issued during the pandemic to close schools, limit capacity in buildings and require masks to be worn. All of those restrictions have either expired or been rescinded by courts.

Friday’s ruling has no immediate impact given that the current school year has ended, but it limits the powers of health departments in the future by preventing them from ordering school closures.

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

Rick Esenberg, president of WILL, praised the ruling.

“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,” he said in a statement.

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