Michigan Parish Files Lawsuit to Protect School From State Intrusion Over Catholic Beliefs on Sexuality

The parish fears the school will be targeted, in the wake of the Michigan Supreme Court’s recent reinterpretation of state antidiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sacred Heart parish worries that a reinterpretation of a law would prevent Sacred Heart Academy from maintaining its standard-of-conduct policies for employees and its approach to how it helps students who struggle with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria.
Sacred Heart parish worries that a reinterpretation of a law would prevent Sacred Heart Academy from maintaining its standard-of-conduct policies for employees and its approach to how it helps students who struggle with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. (photo: Alliance Defending Freedom)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Amid fears that a Catholic school could be forced to close its doors if it refuses to compromise its beliefs regarding sexuality, a Grand Rapids parish is suing the Michigan attorney general and Department of Civil Rights.

Sacred Heart of Jesus parish, which operates Sacred Heart Academy in the western Michigan city, filed its lawsuit on Dec. 12, after the Michigan Supreme Court reinterpreted the state’s antidiscrimination laws regarding sex. Under the new interpretation, the prohibition on discrimination based on sex also encompasses sexual orientation and gender-identity discrimination. 

The parish worries that this reinterpretation would prevent the school from maintaining its standard-of-conduct policies for employees and its approach to how it helps students who struggle with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. The lawsuit requests a permanent injunction to prevent the attorney general’s office and Department of Civil Rights from enforcing these rules on Sacred Heart.

“Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish was founded more than a century ago and has been serving families in the Grand Rapids’ west side ever since,” Father Ron Floyd, the pastor of the parish, told the Register in a statement provided by his lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). “The government has no business interfering with how a church runs its own schools. We simply want to continue to act out our faith without being threatened by the government.”

In May 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) began to interpret the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act’s prohibition on “discrimination because of … sex,” to apply to both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” even though the act does not include those terms. Because the act grants agencies the authority to interpret statutes, MCRC adopted a resolution that claimed discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is, in all cases, a discrimination based on that person’s sex. 

In a 5-2 ruling in July 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld that interpretation in the case Rouch World, LLC V. Department of Civil Rights

The court’s opinion stated that the law itself does not define sex, but that both a narrow and an expansive definition of “sex” would lead the court to the same conclusion because “it would be impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”

Two judges dissented from the majority opinion, arguing that none of the lawmakers who passed the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act in the 1970s would have interpreted their prohibition on sex discrimination to include discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Judge Brian Zahra noted that lawmakers expressly considered the addition of language to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation when the bill was originally being debated, but decided not to include that language. He also noted that, according to dictionaries from the time and linguistic evidence, no one at that time would have considered the word “sex” to include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Judge David Viviano went further, noting that the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act does not include any exemptions for religious organizations. The majority, he said, failed to consider whether the 2018 interpretation of the 1970s legislation violated constitutional religious-liberty protections. 

Ryan Tucker, a senior counsel at ADF who is helping represent the Catholic school in court, echoed the religious-liberty concerns. 

“This [reinterpretation] directly impacts our clients’ ability to provide a Catholic education to kids in the community,” Tucker told Register in a statement. “Private religious schools like Sacred Heart Academy should have the right to operate according to their faith.”


Upholding a Catholic Culture

Sacred Heart Academy sets itself apart from public education and other private education options by upholding a Catholic culture in the school. When considering job applicants, the school includes a requirement that all employees believe, support and model the Catholic faith, according to the lawsuit. The standard of conduct is clear — employees must support and exemplify in conduct and expression both Catholic doctrine and morality, as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

As noted in the parish’s lawsuit, the court’s reinterpretation of antidiscrimination law would force the parish and its school to ignore fundamental Catholic teachings on gender and sexuality if it wants to continue operating: the teaching that sexual acts are reserved for a biological man and a biological woman within the bond of marriage; and the rejection of the contemporary claim that a person can change his or her gender to something other than his or her sex. 

The lawsuit states that the academy would not approve any request for special treatment based on transgender ideology or other “LGBTQ” ideologies, such as the use of pronouns inconsistent with one’s biological sex or the use of bathrooms that do not match the individual’s sex. The parish asserted that this would conflict with the Catholic vision of the human person and human flourishing and would be contrary to its evangelical mission.

The parish also believes that this reinterpretation of the law would cause the school to be investigated for discrimination against its students. 

The lawsuit notes that the school has students who experience same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. The school treats those students with dignity and respect, according to the lawsuit, but would not allow the children to wear the uniforms of the opposite sex, use bathrooms that do not align with their biological sex or participate in the opposite sex’s athletic programs. 

If a student requests special treatment in accordance with gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction, that student would be denied and might file a complaint that leads to an investigation from the state, the lawsuit notes.

If Sacred Heart is forced to choose between practicing its Catholic faith or shutting down the school, the lawsuit states that the school would choose to shut down. The school currently educates nearly 400 students and has dozens of staff members.


‘Fundamentally Un-American’

Father Floyd told the Register in a phone interview that the academy has not had any problems with the state restricting its policies at this point, but that the reinterpretation “really puts the crosshairs on us and has a chilling effect.” 

He said the parish seeks to provide an affordable education option that is consistent with the Catholic faith, but now has to struggle against the state. He said the court ruling threatens the parish’s and the parents’ ability to hand down the faith to children, which is core to its mission, core to Catholic doctrine and core to the vocations of both the priests and the parents.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects five rights, the first of which is the right to freely practice one’s religion. Therefore, the constitutional rights of the parish and the parents to practice their religion are both being disregarded by Michigan’s interpretation, according to Father Floyd, who called the ruling “fundamentally un-American.”

“This is a fundamental civil and natural right: [the right] to pass down our faith,” Father Floyd added.

Not only is this a constitutional right, but it is also a Christian obligation, the pastor added, citing  the Fourth Commandment’s divine call for children to honor their parents. This commandment, he said, does not simply provide parents with authority, but also gives them the responsibility to be icons of God’s presence in their children’s lives. He said the right and responsibility of parents to raise one’s children is based in Scripture, is front and center in canon law, and has been reaffirmed in numerous papal encyclicals and the Catechism. 

The lawsuit notes that the school and its faculty are an extension of the parents’ homes and that the court’s reinterpretation of the discrimination statute consequently infringes on the parents’ right to raise their children in accordance with the Catholic faith. 


Will the School Be Targeted?

The Register reached out to the attorney general’s office and the Department of Civil Rights to ask whether a religious school now would be subject to the 2018 interpretation of the antidiscrimination statute. The department declined to comment, and the attorney general’s office also did not respond to a request for comment. 

Sacred Heart’s legal counsel believes the state would enforce this policy against religious schools.

Kate Anderson, a senior counsel at ADF, told the Register in a phone interview that while her legal team has not been contacted by the attorney general’s office, Attorney General Dana Nessel has a bad record on religious liberty and has directly targeted Catholic adoption agencies. 

Earlier in her term, Nessel tried to violate the religious beliefs of Catholic adoption agencies by forcing them to either house children with same-sex couples or lose their contracts with the state. Among a range of other actions critics say establish a pattern of anti-Catholic bias, she has also referred to the Catholic adoption agencies, and anyone who supports them, as “hatemongers.” U.S. district court Judge Robert Jonker temporarily blocked the state policy and accused Nessel of waging a “targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief.” Ultimately, a U.S. Supreme Court decision settled the matter when it ruled that the city of Philadelphia could not discriminate against Catholic adoption agencies for refusing to house children with same-sex couples.

Nessel, who is the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in Michigan, has also made other disparaging comments toward Catholics. In one instance, when asking the Church to stay out of investigations into sexual abuse within the 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.” In another instance, she mocked Pope Francis for encouraging people to start families: “I can tell you nothing is more ‘selfish’ than having kids you don’t want just [because] the Pope thinks you should.”

In light of this context, Sacred Heart parish’s lawsuit states that it expects the attorney general’s office to enforce the reinterpretation of the statute against Catholic schools because of Nessel’s “history of public hostility to the Catholic faith, its beliefs about marriage and human sexuality, and toward Catholic institutions.”