Catholic Parish Challenges Michigan Law That Would Control Who it Hires

Although the attorney general’s office has not issued any legal warnings or brought any complaints to the parish, the lawsuit argues that it could be targeted based on the Michigan Supreme Court’s recent reinterpretation of the law.

Dana Nessel, attorney general of Michigan.
Dana Nessel, attorney general of Michigan. (photo: Michigan Department of Attorney General)

A Catholic parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is taking a legal battle to an appellate court amid fears that a state civil rights law could be used to restrict its religious liberty in matters related to gender identity and sexuality. 

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to block the state attorney general’s office from using the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to force the parish to hire employees who reject Catholic teachings on sexuality and gender identity or change its policies toward students in its parish school who have same-sex attraction or identify as transgender. The parish is asking that the appellate court overturn a lower court’s decision to throw out its lawsuit. 

Although the attorney general’s office has not issued any legal warnings or brought any complaints to the parish, the lawsuit argues that it could be targeted based on the Michigan Supreme Court’s recent reinterpretation of the law. 

The act has existed since 1977, but in July 2022, the court upheld a Michigan Civil Rights Commission interpretation of the law, which stated that the prohibition of discrimination based on a person’s sex also included discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Another institution that is suing the state over the same law, Christian Healthcare Centers, also filed an appeal with the same appellate court after its lawsuit was thrown out. Both organizations are being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom. 

“Michigan officials should respect religious organizations’ constitutionally protected freedom to follow the very faith that has motivated them to serve their communities,” ADF senior counsel John Bursch said in a statement. 

“Christian Healthcare Centers, for example, should be free to continue its vibrant outreach to the communities it serves through its low-cost, high-quality medical care,” Bursch said. 

“And Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish has faithfully served Grand Rapids families for more than a century, and its school provides a rich academic and spiritual environment for hundreds of children. We hope the 6th Circuit will respect their freedoms protected by the First Amendment so that they can continue to serve their communities without being illegitimately subjected to a state law that could undermine their faith and mission.”

The parish alleges in its lawsuit that the new interpretation would allow the attorney general’s office to label its standard of conduct policies for employees at the parish and its school as “discrimination.” The parish’s standard of conduct requires that employees believe, support, and model the faith, which includes adherence to Catholic teachings related to homosexuality and transgenderism. 

In addition to hiring practices, the parish is concerned that this reinterpretation of the law could prevent the school from upholding Catholic teaching related to same-sex attraction and transgenderism if the issue arises with students.

Similarly, Christian Healthcare Centers fears that the reinterpretation of this law could force them to hire people who refuse to live in accordance with Christian teachings on sexuality and gender. The group also fears it could be forced to facilitate gender transitions for patients and use pronouns that do not match the person’s biological identity.

District Court Judge Jane Beckering disagreed with their arguments, ruling that the law already includes protections for religious liberty and neither organization was able to show that the attorney general’s office intended to enforce the law in a way that would restrict their religious liberty. 

The judge decided that both lawsuits lacked standing and that the “subjective chill” of the activities felt by the groups was not sufficient enough to justify the lawsuits. Beckering ultimately dismissed both lawsuits. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a statement praising the district court’s ruling. 

“I am pleased that Judge Beckering has consistently recognized that the plaintiffs’ cases were unsupported by facts,” Nessel said. “Under Michigan law, religious freedoms are already taken into consideration under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act when assessing discrimination claims. Our state’s residents can rest assured that Michigan’s recently enacted protections for the LGBTQ+ community will be enforced to the fullest extent as the Constitution permits.”

Despite assurances that the law takes the religious freedom into consideration, Nessel has been accused of using state laws to target Christian organizations in the past. Earlier in her term, the attorney general unsuccessfully tried to force faith-based adoption centers to certify adoptions of same-sex couples or lose state contracts. She referred to the faith-based centers as “hate-mongers.”

Nessel has made other disparaging comments directly toward Catholics. She mocked Pope Francis for encouraging people to start families by saying, “I can tell you nothing is more ‘selfish’ than having kids you don’t want just [because] the pope thinks you should.” In response to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, she said: “If an investigator comes to your door and asks to speak with you, please ask to see their badge and not their rosary.”