After Michigan Supreme Court Redefines ‘Sex,’ Catholic School Lawsuit Warns of Broad Impact

The plaintiffs say the new interpretation violates their religious freedoms under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Gender pronouns written out in cursive on a chalkboard inside a classroom.
Gender pronouns written out in cursive on a chalkboard inside a classroom. (photo: Kryvosheia Yurii / Shutterstock)

The Michigan Supreme Court’s new interpretation of anti-discrimination law requires schools to impose strict policies and practices enforcing non-Catholic views of sexual orientation and gender identity and would ban catechesis about marriage and the sexes, a Catholic school’s legal challenge claims.

In July, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity were protected categories under a 1976 Michigan anti-discrimination law, the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

In response, Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and Sacred Heart Academy, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, along with several school parents, filed a lawsuit Dec. 22 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Southern Division. The K-12 school has almost 400 students.

The plaintiffs say the new interpretation violates their religious freedoms under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

Making sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes, the lawsuit says, requires schools to allow staff and students to use restrooms or locker rooms that are inconsistent with their sex, and obligates Sacred Heart School to affirm self-adopted gender identities or pronoun use for students and staff.

“These practices are incompatible with living according to the Catholic faith and its doctrine,” says the lawsuit, which seeks a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law. “Rather than defy Catholic doctrine in these ways, Sacred Heart would shut down.”

As redefined, Michigan laws are so broad that they would bar the school from teaching that marriage is “a permanent, exclusive, and procreative union between one man and one woman” or that “each person is created male or female in the image and likeness of God and that this identity is immutable,” said the lawsuit. The school could not post these teachings on its website, require employees to live by them, or explicitly instruct students about them.

Defendants in the case include Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, John E. Johnson Jr., executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and members of the state civil rights commission.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys are part of the pro-religious freedom Alliance Defending Freedom legal group.

“No government official has the right to force a Catholic institution like Sacred Heart to affirm positions contrary to the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality,” Kate Anderson, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said Dec. 22.

“Michigan officials are forcing Sacred Heart to make an unconstitutional and unconscionable choice: either cease teaching and practicing the Catholic faith or close their doors forever,” said Ryan Tucker, another senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom.

Religious schools are exempt from the civil rights law’s ban on religious discrimination but they are not exempt from prohibition based on other protected classes, including sex.

Unlike similar laws in other states, Michigan civil rights law does not include “routine religious exemptions that allow Sacred Heart to operate consistent with the Catholic faith and its doctrine,” the lawsuit said.

Given the new understanding of “sex,” both civil rights law and penal law “impose significant burdens on Sacred Heart and pressure it to change how it operates its school, how it manages employment decisions, and how it communicates its Catholic faith,” the lawsuit says.

Attorneys in the case said parental participation is important because their First Amendment rights are at risk if they cannot choose a school that aligns with their religious beliefs.

“The parents we represent in this case specifically opted out of public schools and instead chose to send their children to Sacred Heart Academy so that they could grow academically and spiritually in the Catholic faith,” said Anderson, one of the attorneys in the case. “Every parent has the right to make the best education decision for their children, and the government can’t deprive parents of that fundamental freedom.”

The lawsuit says Sacred Heart Academy has had students who experience gender discordance or same-sex attraction.

“Sacred Heart always ministers to all students with sensitivity, compassion, and charity. Due to its commitment to student flourishing, personal fulfillment, and spiritual growth, Sacred Heart will not adopt policies, permit behavior, or communicate messages that are inconsistent with the Catholic faith and its doctrine,” the lawsuit continues.

Provisions of the law include “publication bans,” which prevent covered entities from “making public communications contrary to the law’s values,” the lawsuit says.

The reinterpretation of the law has interfered with the school’s ability to hire an art teacher and an athletic coach. This is because advertising the positions and their required Catholic values violates the new understanding of the law.

Another Catholic Parish Also Suing

A similar Dec. 5 lawsuit was filed by St. Joseph’s Parish, the only Catholic parish in the town of St. Johns, about 30 miles north of Lansing. The parish, which operates an elementary school, said the redefinition of anti-discrimination law threatens the school’s ability to advertise for and hire employees who model the teachings of the Catholic Church. It voiced concern about liability for alleged sex discrimination if it bars a male student from using a female locker room or from playing on a female sports team. The parish is concerned about liability if a male church visitor tries to use the female restroom or if a couple seeks to hold a same-sex marriage ceremony at the church.

The parish seeks an injunction to bar the state from enforcing the anti-discrimination law in a way that violates the parish’s religious autonomy rights.

Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing expressed his full support for the parish in a Dec. 6 statement.