A Catholic parish in the Diocese of Lansing has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to protect its right to hire parish employees and staff for its grade school who uphold the tenets of the Catholic faith.
The filing follows a July 28 ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court that reinterpreted a state civil rights statute's definition of sex to include gender identity and sexual orientation without any exemption for religious organizations.
Filed Dec. 5 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan-Southern Division, the suit names state Attorney General Dana Nessel, the Department of Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Commission.
Becket, a Washington-based religious liberty law firm, is representing the plaintiff, St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Johns, Michigan. Founded in 1857, it is the only Catholic parish in town. Its elementary school opened in 1924.
The state Supreme Court's "new understanding" of the civil rights statute "would make it illegal for St. Joseph to operate in accordance with the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage and sexuality," Becket said in a statement.
"This threatens the school's right to hire staff who will faithfully pass on the tenets of the faith to the next generation," it said.
In addition, St. Joseph "welcomes the public to its facilities," so "it faces the risk of being held liable for discrimination because of its sincere religious beliefs about gender and marriage," the law firm added.
"Michigan's redefinition of sex threatens St. Joseph's right to create and maintain a parish and school environment that reflects its Catholic faith," Becket said, but federal law protects the parish "from attacks on its religious mission."
First off, Becket said, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of religious groups -- "including churches and their schools" -- to operate in accordance with their religious mission "free from government interference."
"The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently articulated this principle, most recently in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru" it said, referring to a 2020 ruling that held religious institutions must be free to make internal management decisions -- "like deciding who will teach and lead the religious community" -- without the government getting involved.
The Michigan Supreme Court handed down its 5-2 ruling in a 2020 lawsuit filed by two businesses who said that based on their religious beliefs, they could not, respectively, host a same-sex wedding or provide services to a transgender client who was going through sexual reassignment surgery.
The first business was Rouch World Events Center in Sturgis, Michigan, and the second was UpRooted Electrolysis in the Upper Peninsula.
The businesses sought a determination that "sexual orientation and gender identity" are not protected under the state's 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act -- which protects against discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status and marital status.
They asked the court to rule that the Michigan Department of Civil Rights was wrong in a 2018 memo interpreting these two categories as being part of the civil rights law.
But in its ruling, the state Supreme Court said these two categories were indeed protected classes under that law.
In July 29 statement about the ruling, the Michigan Catholic Conference said it would "usurp the Legislature's role in the democratic process, present constitutional problems for people of faith, and place in jeopardy religious persons and entities who wish to serve others in the public square."
The conference, which is the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops, said the ruling did not specifically address whether enforcing the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act as reinterpreted would violate federal and state constitutional religious freedom protections.
The two justices who dissented from the majority said the ruling posed "constitutional problems relating to religious liberty."