Massachusetts pastors cheer state’s decision to drop churches from transgender public accommodation list
By Evan Lips | December 15, 2016, 16:28 EST
Pastors from four Massachusetts churches are hailing a recent settlement in a federal case pitting their right to religious freedom against the state’s interpretation of the new transgender public accommodations law, lauding the agreement as a victory.
“I’m happy to say on Monday of this week the churches moved to dismiss their case because both (Attorney General Maura Healey) and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination revised their controversial guidance to specifically recognize the First Amendment rights of these organizations,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, in a recent press conference. “In short, we accomplished what we set out to do.”
The federal complaint, filed in October by four Bay State churches and argued in court by attorneys from MFI and the Alliance Defending Freedom, took aim at a series of guidelines issued in September by the MCAD and a list produced by Healey identifying “places of public accommodation.”
The law, enacted this past summer, criminalizes gender discrimination in public arenas such as hotels and fitness clubs and provides citizens the right to use changing rooms and bathrooms based upon their gender identity and not their biological sex.
The original list included “houses of worship” in addition to locations such as restaurants and museums. The MCAD guidelines attempted to explain how even churches “could be seen as a place of public accommodation” should it elect to hold “a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper.”
Pastor Marlene Yeo of Community Christian Fellowship in Haverhill noted that her church frequently conducts a “myriad” of activities outside of worship, including food pantry work addiction services but stressed that adhering to the new law “would have affected how we are able to function in our community.”
Pastor George Small of Horizon Christian Fellowship in Fitchburg said he feared being told by the state not to practice what he preaches.
“If our practice is not consistent with our message, that’s hypocrisy,” Small said. “For the first time in my 20 years as serving as a pastor, for the first time there was now going to be a law that dictates what we do within the walls of our church.”
Pastor Dave Aucoin of the Abundant Life Church in Swansea thanked Healey for being willing to work with churches and “revising what they have put on their website and part of that law — we really do appreciate our religious freedoms.”
Christiana Holcombe, ADF’s lead legal counsel in the case, said the naming of churches and other houses of worship to the list of venues that must comply with the new so-called “bathroom bill” “should never have happened.”
Holcombe said Healey recently issued a letter to ADF attorneys that “stated that the lawsuit caused them to revisit the issue and recognize that houses of worship cannot and we never intended to be unqualified places of public accommodation.”
Holcombe added that the MCAD “revoked that absurd spaghetti supper test” and “acknowledged it cannot apply the new gender identity law in any manner that would infringe in any way on churches’ and on houses of worships’ free exercise of religion.”
“While we’re pleased, this lawsuit should have never been necessary.”
MFI and other groups opposing the law, however, are still intent on challenging the measure via a potential 2018 ballot referendum. The ballot question committee Keep MA Safe submitted to the state in October more than 34,000 signatures from registered voters, enough to ensure that the referendum advances.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed the original bill into law on July 8.
Read a copy of Healey’s letter to ADF: