Michigan Classical School Won’t Play Identity Politics

COMMENTARY: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, will hear oral argument on June 11 in the case of Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, which was rejuvenated by Father Robert Sirico.

Students at Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, Mich. walk toward the neighoring parish.
Students at Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, Mich. walk toward the neighoring parish. (photo: Alliance Defending Freedom)

For Catholics in the United States, the month of June, which the Church dedicates to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is our chance to be counter-cultural in defense of the dignity of God’s creation of men and women, made in his image and likeness. 

Providentially, Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has already taken on this challenge. Joined by a group of parents, it is suing the state of Michigan in federal court, demanding a reprieve from the state’s sweeping “anti-discrimination” law. Oral argument is scheduled for June 11. 

The main protagonist in this story is Father Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. In the 1970s, Sirico became a Pentecostal minister. Later he returned to the faith and has worked for decades to advance sound principles of economics and morality. 

In sharp contrast to his previous stance as a leftist and champion of gay liberation, Father Sirico offers a staunch defense of the sanctity of life, the institution of marriage and religious freedom. Most recently, he has been a major contributor to the renewal of Catholic education in his role as pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

When Father Sirico was appointed pastor in 2012, the parish’s K-8 school was struggling with only 68 students. Rather than close the school, he reinvigorated it as a vibrant part of the parish. “A school is an apostolate — the largest of a parish. If you view it that way, a school does not compete with a parish, it assists the parish. The formation of souls is the Church’s mission and how it’s done is a tactical decision,” he explained in an interview with Catholic School Playbook

To preserve its Catholic identity, the school requires parents and students to sign an agreement indicating that they will live virtuously according to this doctrine. And while the academy will admit and retain students who experience “same-sex attraction, gender confusion or gender dysphoria,” it will only do so provided these students and their families desire a “Catholic formation and education.” 

As for its recruitment of teachers, administrators and staff, Sacred Heart Academy hires and retains only those who “support, live and model” the faith and its doctrine and asks employees to publicly swear annually “an oath of fidelity” to the doctrine, including on marriage and sexuality. 

Today Sacred Heart Academy is a well-regarded and thriving K-12 parochial school with almost 400 students, providing a rich academic and spiritual environment for its students with a classical, Catholic education. In the capable hands of Sacred Heart Parish’s new pastor, Father Ronnie Floyd, and an experienced and committed leadership team, the academy continues to stand out as one of the top classical schools in the nation.  

Rather than celebrate such a laudable turnaround, progressives in state government would like nothing more than to rid Michigan of institutions like Sacred Heart.  

Michigan lawmakers recently amended the state’s Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. The act’s reach covers employment, education and public accommodations and, unlike most state anti-discrimination laws, does not include a general religious exemption. 

Instead, employers unable to embrace the new ideology of gender must apply for a discretionary exemption, awarded only upon proving that decisions based on protected traits are “reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the business or enterprise.” 

It is said that every story needs a villain, and Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel is happy to play the role here. Nessel is the second openly lesbian woman elected attorney general of a state in the United States, and she has a track record of anti-Catholic bias. 

For example, she changed state policy to require that contracts with faith-based adoption agencies unable to work directly with LGBT couples should be terminated. The state ended up settling with two agencies, Catholic Charities West Michigan and St. Vincent Catholic Charities, agreeing to reimburse legal fees the agencies incurred in defense of religious liberty. During a news conference on her office’s investigation of Catholic clergy sexual abuse, Nessel told church officials to stop “self-policing.” She added, “If an investigator comes to your door and asks to speak with you, please ask to see their badge, not their rosary.” Her office has vowed to enforce aggressively the newly expanded Civil Rights Act against alleged discrimination. 

Sacred Heart hasn’t applied for a discretionary exemption from the Act for the Academy for several reasons. It fears that doing so would subject the school to prosecution by Nessel. It also rightly believes that the burdensome process invades Church autonomy and violates the Academy’s rights to hire those who will advance its mission. 

Concluding that the Civil Rights Act now forces it to operate at odds with either the law or Church teaching, Sacred Heart Academy and three of its families sought an injunction preventing enforcement of the act against the Academy and a declaratory judgment that “the Act’s and penal code’s employment, education, and public accommodations provisions, and the publication bans have violated and continue to violate Sacred Heart’s First Amendment rights.”

A federal district court last summer granted Nessel’s motion to dismiss Sacred Heart’s suit, ruling that the school and parents lacked standing — that is, the legal right to challenge the Act. 

“Even assuming arguendo that Sacred Heart’s proposed conduct is proscribed by Michigan law,” wrote federal district court Judge Jane Beckering, Sacred Heart has “failed to supply some indication of imminent enforcement, and mere allegations of a ‘subjective chill’ are alone insufficient to establish an injury-in-fact for standing purposes.” 

This is nonsense. Sacred Heart has standing to challenge the Civil Rights Act because the school’s constitutional activities, including its speech and religious autonomy, are within the range of activities prohibited under the Act. And, under the zealous direction of Attorney General Nessel, Michigan will certainly try to enforce the act against religious organizations like Sacred Heart Academy. Judicial intervention is proper, given the clear unconstitutional infringements and the harm to Sacred Heart and the school's parents. 

After three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the federal appellate court that reviews cases filed in the state of Michigan, hear oral argument June 11, that court will likely render its decision by early fall. This will be just in time for Sacred Heart Academy to start the new academic year, hopefully freed of the worry that Dana Nessel will shut the school down.