Churches sue Massachusetts over transgender law after government document sparks First Amendment fears
Posted October 14, 2016
Four churches filed a lawsuit against the state of Massachusetts Tuesday, challenging regulations they say would force them to violate their faith and conscience.
The battle began back in July when the legislature voted to add gender identity to the state's public accommodations law, with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the state's primary civil rights agency, later issuing a controversial document Sept. 1 titled, "Gender Identity Guidance."
As Deseret News previously reported, that document immediately sparked concern among the faithful. The text, which defines the scope of public accommodations law, proclaims that churches will sometimes be included under that umbrella.
This means that houses of worship could theoretically be required to allow transgender people to use bathrooms, showers and other facilities that align with their gender identity.
"Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public," the guidance reads. "All persons, regardless of gender identity, shall have the right to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation."
It is this language that led four churches — Horizon Christian Fellowship, Swansea Abundant Life Assembly of God, House of Destiny Ministries and Faith Christian Fellowship of Haverhill — to file suit, with Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm, alleging that the state is "threatening these churches with fines and imprisonment simply for operating consistently with their faith."
The law firm filed a pre-enforcement challenge on behalf of the churches — a complaint filed against a law perceived by a challenger as a threat to his or her rights before the law has been enforced.
So, while the churches have not yet seen the government use the public accommodations law against them, they are taking action beforehand, arguing that the government is compelling them to violate their religious tenets.
In addition to the lawsuit, the churches have filed a motion asking that the law be suspended while the complaint works its way through the courts.
"The government shouldn’t encroach on the internal, religious practices of a church," Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Steve O’Ban said in a statement. "Neither the commission nor the attorney general has the constitutional authority to dictate how any church uses its facility or what public statements a church can make concerning a deeply held religious belief, such as on human sexuality."
The plaintiffs' argument is that events held at a church have a "religious purpose," and that the government cannot exercise authority over those gatherings.
"Government officials have no business determining which church activities are religious and which ones aren’t," Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christiana Holcomb said.
The churches are also arguing that pastors are prohibited from making statements that would discriminate or urge others to do so and, thus, they say the law forces "churches and pastors to refrain from religious expression regarding sexuality that conflicts with the government's views."
As previously reported Senate Bill 2407 — a law that bars transgender discrimination in public accommodations and allows transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity — took effect Oct. 1.
Critics and supporters, alike, were quick to speak out with generalities about the measure after it was passed July 8, though the more specific concern surrounding churches didn't emerge until the guidance that explicitly mentions churches was released Sept. 1.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination did say that churches are "by and large … exempt from being held to the (state's) anti-discrimination laws" during an interview with The Christian Post last month.
But any event that is held for "purely secular purposes" might not be exempt, meaning transgender people would be permitted to use the bathroom of their choice.
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