Faith leaders join to lobby lawmakers for COVID-19 legislation

Agenda includes stronger public health support, economic aid to people and communities

Members of the "Faithful Action for a Healthy Wisconsin" coalition hold a news conference in November on Facebook. (Facebook Live screen capture)

Faith group leaders are meeting with state lawmakers this week, urging them to pass legislation to combat the coronavirus pandemic with stronger public health measures.

The lobbying visits will include Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist participants, according to the organizers. The campaign is the work of the “Faithful Action for a Healthy Wisconsin” coalition, a joint project of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, and WISDOM — a statewide network of mainly urban churches engaged in social justice activism.

In a statement this week, the coalition urged elected officials to embrace “a clear public message” to stop the spread of the virus.

The group also called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would provide frontline workers with hazard pay, sick leave, improved personal protective equipment (PPE) and more testing supplies; direct funding to local governments to expand testing for the virus and to address community food and housing needs; increased access to and expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits and a statewide mask requirement.

The interfaith group said as well that said the Legislature should reject proposals that would restrict the power of the state Department of Health Services (DHS) or local public health authorities to close or limit gatherings in schools, businesses, houses of worship and other public accommodations.

“As Wisconsinites, we are called to protect our neighbors and our communities during these difficult times, and as faith leaders we have an obligation to take action and speak out against our elected officials’ inadequate response to these crises,” the Faithful Action for Healthy Wisconsin statement said. The group called its legislative proposals “effective bipartisan steps that the Legislature can take to slow the spread of COVID-19, protect our frontline workers, and ensure we care for those most vulnerable to this ongoing recession and COVID-19 pandemic.”

The coalition has been raising its profile on the pandemic over the last several months. In October, some of the same groups took part in a virtual news conference to express support for strong public health measures and to urge faith leaders to stick to virtual worship instead of in-person gatherings to help keep participants safe in the pandemic.

The week before Thanksgiving, a larger virtual gathering delivered a joint message in which participants endorsed adherence to public health guidelines that include wearing masks, maintaining social distance and to refrain from gatherings of more than 10 people.

“At this moment the state of Wisconsin is in a health crisis,” said Rev. Reirin Gumbel of the Milwaukee Zen Center, among those who spoke at the Nov. 16 event. “All of us need to live up to our values of justice and compassion for all. We must curb this pandemic, especially for those who are disproportionately impacted, like persons of color, and the elderly.”

At that gathering, faith leaders also called on elected officials to pass legislation enforcing public health practices and addressing the pandemic’s economic impacts.

“This pandemic is a nonpartisan issue,” said Bishop Laurie Skow Anderson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s northwest Wisconsin synod, speaking at the Nov. 16 event. “And whatever our elected leaders’ party affiliation might be, they must follow the science and public health experts. the Legislature’s failure to act has endangered healthcare and other essential workers place stress on hospitals and other health services.”

Meetings — conducted virtually to avoid the risk of spreading the virus — have been scheduled for Thursday with three Democratic lawmakers: Reps. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) and Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) and Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point). A group also met Tuesday with Rep. Jesse Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek).

Organizers are also seeking meetings with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and other lawmakers, according to Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Faith Voices for Justice.