Lawsuit claims AG Healey, MCAD, illegally forcing churches to comply with public accommodations law
By Evan Lips | October 11, 2016, 17:26 EST
BOSTON — A handful of Bay State churches have filed suit in federal court against the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and Attorney General Maura Healey, claiming that they erred when they added houses of worship to the list of venues that must comply with the new transgender public accommodations law, or “bathroom bill.”
The federal complaint states that requiring the churches to comply with the recently passed state statute “contradicts the churches’ message about God’s intention and purpose for human sexuality” and is forcing them to “speak a message that they do not want to speak; namely, that sex is fluid, that it is based on subjective experience, and that God approves of biological males using restrooms and showers with females, and vice versa.”
The lawsuit takes aim at a set of guidelines issued on Sept. 1 by the MCAD and a list of “places of public accommodation” compiled by Healey, in which she names “houses of worship” alongside other venues like restaurants and bars. The MCAD edict states that “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,” but notes that “all charges, including those involving religious institutions or religious exemptions, are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”
Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel to the national organization Alliance Defending Freedom, said Tuesday that the MCAD and Healey “are clearly unqualified” to rule on religious institutions on a case-by-case basis.
“A spaghetti supper test, are you kidding me?” Holcomb said. “This is a secular group of political appointees that has the power to look at churches and decide whether or not they can exercise their right to religious freedoms?
“Religious liberties are the cornerstone of the First Amendment and if you remove them then all civil liberties will collapse.”
Holcomb stressed that her organization, which is representing the four churches named as plaintiffs in the complaint, plans to “fight it as far as we need to fight it.”
“Regardless of anyone’s beliefs and political affiliations we should all be able to agree that the government should have no control over religious freedoms,” she added.
The complaint also points out that the state’s updated public accommodations laws “prohibited covered entities from making statements intended ‘to discriminate’ or to ‘incite’ others to do so.” The lawsuit claims that the MCAD and Healey “also intend to force churches and pastors to refrain from religious expression regarding biological sex and gender identity,” an order they argue is intended to “self-censor and chill” the speech of the clergy.
For example, the lawsuit claims that pastors will be forced to “self-censor their speech” during sermons and other religious services in order to avoid being punished by government authorities.
“The pastors have stated that sex is fixed and determined by God at birth based on biology and anatomy, that all churches which follow God’s word must ensure that the uses of their buildings are consistent with that teaching, and that society’s laws and practices should reflect biblical human sexuality, even if the government disagrees and insists that sex turns on one’s gender identity,” the lawsuit states. “The churches and pastors are objectively, reasonably chilled from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech due to the risk of MCADs’ enforcement of the act and the substantial penalties, including punishing fines and up to a year in jail.”
The lawsuit also takes a jab at lawmakers for “failing to provide an exemption for religious institutions” and rips the MCAD for its definition of “secular activities,” labeling the “spaghetti supper test” as “woefully inadequate and confusing.”
“The churches’ religious beliefs are that sex is an immutable trait from which springs the natural and healthy desires for physical privacy and modesty in states of partial or full undress, such as in showers, changing rooms and restrooms,” the lawsuit adds. “The language of the cct is broad enough to include within that prohibition written sermons, theological expositions, educational presentations, newsletters or church worship bulletin text, or other statements from the churches, pastors, and other religious leaders.”
Massachusetts is not the first state to play host to a legal battle over recently passed transgender public accommodations laws and religious freedoms. ADF has also taken up the cause in Iowa, where in July it filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several churches challenging that state’s law.
On Tuesday afternoon a spokeswoman for Healey said her office is currently reviewing the lawsuit.
“We are pleased that we finally have a law in place that protects transgender people from discrimination in public places,” said Jillian Fennimore, a press secretary for Healey, in a prepared statement. “This law is about civil rights and is critical for people who were without full protection and equality under the law for too long.”
“We are pleased that we finally have a law in place that protects transgender people from discrimination in public places. This law is about civil rights and is critical for people who were without full protection and equality under the law for too long.”
The four churches named as plaintiffs include Abundant Life Church in Swansea, Horizon Christian Fellowship in Fitchburg, House of Destiny Ministries in Southbridge and Faith Christian Fellowship in Haverhill. The churches have also filed for a preliminary injunction in an effort to delay any enforcement until after the case is decided.
The new law took effect on Oct. 1 and gives transgender people the right to access same-sex bathrooms and changing rooms according to their gender identity rather than their biological sex at the time of birth. The Massachusetts Family Institute is currently awaiting word from Secretary of State William Galvin as to whether or not it has submitted the required 32,375 signatures in order to secure a 2018 referendum in which voters could overturn the law.
Holcomb said there are many more churches that have expressed concerns about the new statute.
“But these are the churches that decided they wanted to stand up and push back,” she added, referencing the four plaintiffs.
Read a copy of the complaint: