Jewish, Muslim Groups Call for Religious-Liberty Protections in Catholic-School Lawsuit

The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, with the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, filed a brief.

Freedom of religion is included in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Freedom of religion is included in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (photo: Shutterstock)

A Jewish group and an Islamic advocacy team have weighed in on a Catholic school’s challenge of a Michigan antidiscrimination law, calling for religious-liberty protections to be upheld by the appeals court hearing the case.

In July 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity were protected categories under a 1976 Michigan antidiscrimination statute, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Sacred Heart of Jesus parish and its school, Sacred Heart Academy, in Grand Rapids, filed a lawsuit last December arguing that the new interpretation of the law would require schools to impose strict policies and practices enforcing non-Catholic views of sexual orientation and gender identity. They also argued the law would ban catechesis about marriage and the sexes and force the school and parish to hire staff who “lead lives in direct opposition to the Catholic faith.”

A district court tossed out the lawsuit earlier this year, stating the school lacked standing to bring the challenge. The attorney general’s office has not yet issued any legal warnings or brought any complaints to the school under the court’s reinterpretation of state law. 

The parish and school filed an appeal, arguing that it was entitled to “pre-enforcement standing” even if the state had not yet moved to enforce the new interpretation.

Last week, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — a religious-freedom legal advocacy group representing the Catholic plaintiffs in the case — revealed that a Jewish group and Muslim advocacy team had filed a brief urging the appeals court to preserve key protections for religious groups regardless of how it otherwise rules in the suit.

The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, with the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, filed the brief “in support of neither party,” with the groups stating that they “take no position on which party should prevail in this specific appeal.” 

Rather, the groups said, they wrote “to address one question and one alone: whether the First Amendment protects religious groups’ authority and autonomy to decide which roles and responsibilities should be limited to coreligionists.”

The petitioners sought to “aid the court’s understanding of the coreligionist exemption and to explain the deleterious effect that a limitation or revocation of that right would have on religious groups in general and on minority religious groups in particular.”

The “exemption” in question, the filing said, “[defers] to religious organizations’ own determination of which roles and responsibilities are so tied to the group’s religious mission that they may be filled only by fellow believers.” 

It is a “well-established” principle, they wrote, one that has “been consistently recognized by all three branches of the federal government.”

The brief argued that “regardless of which party prevails in this appeal,” the court should “make clear … the importance of the coreligionist exemption and its protection of the right of religious groups to make religiously informed decisions” in directing their own institutions.

In a news release, ADF senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy John Bursch said Michigan “is forcing Sacred Heart to make an unconstitutional and unconscionable choice between teaching and practicing the Catholic faith or closing their doors forever.”

“We and the groups that have filed briefs in support of our clients are urging the 6th Circuit to allow their lawsuit to continue so they can take steps toward serving their community without fear of government punishment,” Bursch said.

ADF noted that the Grand Rapids parish was founded more than a century ago by Polish immigrants. 

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