Faith, freedom and repealing the ‘bathroom bill’

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Several months back I received a phone call out of the blue late one afternoon from a youth pastor at a Boston area church. He had questions about transgenderism and discrimination laws.  Specifically, he was planning an overnight youth retreat for his church and was concerned because two of the teens who were interested in coming were girls who “identified” as boys. Since the setting for the retreat was a Christian camp with group cabins, privacy was going to be an issue. The two young women would likely complain of being “mis-gendered” if they were lodged in the girls’ cabin, and might claim discrimination if offered separate sleeping spaces.

It goes without saying that biological teenage girls should not be sleeping and showering in the same cabin as teenage boys. At least, it did until now. Although this conundrum was, at its heart, a complex pastoral question, the pastor called me to figure out a solution that would not get him or his church in trouble with the law.

That was before Governor Baker signed “An Act relative to transgender non-discrimination” into law earlier this month. If this law stands, that pastor is going to have a much more challenging time navigating the severe criminal penalties the law establishes for claims of gender identity discrimination in public accommodations. If he sent a flyer home to concerned parents explaining that youth will be housed in overnight lodging consistent with their biology (a policy very much in line with the Judeo-Christian understanding that human beings were made in God’s image as either male or female), he could face a fine or potentially 30 days in jail. If the youth group was turning in for the night at camp and the pastor stopped one of the young women from carrying her sleeping bag and pillow into the boys’ cabin, he could be liable for up to a year in jail.

These types of draconian punishments for potential claims of gender identity discrimination are, I would hope, unlikely. But attorneys are trained to alert people to the maximum liability to which they are exposing themselves. One would also think that churches would not have such theologically rooted decisions on addressing human sexuality and sexual sin dictated to them by the state. Again, I would hope this would be the case, but the legal horizon in this area is quickly darkening.

In December of last year, a Massachusetts judge ruled that the state’s religious freedom laws did not apply to an all-girls’ Catholic school that refused to hire a married gay man. This decision, the first of its kind in Massachusetts, came despite the fact that the religious exemption statute was part of the sexual orientation nondiscrimination law passed in 1989, and was intended to shield religious organizations from such discrimination claims. The new gender identity law was passed with no religious exemptions in it.

Also, although churches are not typically considered public accommodations, and so should not be affected by this transgender public accommodations law, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s official state website lists “houses of worship” as public accommodations, along with “convention centers, lecture halls… and other places of public gathering.” This is the same Attorney General who recently said that people who have objections to using public bathrooms with members of the opposite sex should “just hold it.” And, if a discrimination claim against a church were brought along these grounds, it would enter a bureaucratic process under the supervision of, once again, the Attorney General. How many churches will be willing to face off against the chief attorney of the Commonwealth, herself an outspoken evangelist for “transgender rights,” under those circumstances?

Faith leaders should have the right to navigate complex pastoral challenges of relational brokenness, sexual confusion, teenage angst, and Biblical discipleship without the threat of a crippling lawsuit hanging over their head if someone gets offended in the process. This is one of the many reasons why I am working with Keep MA Safe, the organization launched this week to repeal what has become known as the “bathroom bill.”

Most often I talk about the obvious privacy and safety concerns of mandating bathroom, locker room, and changing facility access based on a person’s internal sense of gender. No young girl should have to undress and shower with a naked anatomical man looking on. However it is important to realize the more subtle, but very real, threat to the independence of our churches and faith-based organizations. Not only does this law require the denial of basic biological fact, but it threatens to force a theology of the body that runs counter to Biblical teaching upon our houses of worship. The Bay State is the root of religious freedom on this continent. This law must be repealed.

Andrew Beckwith

Andrew Beckwith

Andrew Beckwith is President of the Massachusetts Family Institute. Read his past columns here.