Southbridge Town Council Chairman, Esteban Carrasco, is among the pastors of four Massachusetts churches filing a lawsuit in federal court. The suit, filed Tuesday against state officials, alleged the pastors are being forced to open church changing rooms, shower facilities, restrooms and other “intimate areas” to people based on their perceived gender identity, and not their biological sex.
Additionally, the suit alleges the state intends to force churches and pastors to refrain from religious expression regarding sexuality that conflicts with the government’s views.
Filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys on behalf of the pastors against the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and Attorney General Maura Healey, the suit challenges their interpretation of the state’s public accommodations laws that were amended by the Legislature in July.
Alliance Defending Freedom alleges the action violates the churches’ religious beliefs and their freedom to express views consistent with their faith and operate their facilities in a manner that doesn’t violate their core religious beliefs because the law also prohibits covered entities from making statements intended “to discriminate” or to “incite” others to do so.
Andrew D. Beckwith, ADF attorney, said the constitution prohibits the government from punishing churches and jailing pastors for speaking consistently with their faith. Mr. Beckwith and Attorney Philip D. Moran are representing churches in the suit for ADF, a non-profit legal organization.
“That is what we’re concerned about in this case,” Mr. Beckwith said. “The reason we came forward with this is because an unofficial commission (MCAD) said that churches that hold events open to the public cannot speak or act in way that would make people uncomfortable about their identity. To apply that to churches is an unprecedented intrusion of first amendment rights.”
In July 2016, the Massachusetts Legislature added “gender identity” as a protected class to the state’s public accommodation laws and directed MCAD and the attorney general to issue regulations or guidance by Sept. 1. MCAD stated in the document, that “a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the public.” Subsequently, the attorney general said that “houses of worship” are places of public accommodation.
Though churches welcome and serve all people, Mr. Beckwith said, they are not businesses.
“But, they are being treated as such,” Mr. Beckwith said. “When you walk into a house of worship, you are entering a private, often times consecrated, space dedicated to religious exercise similar to walking into a person’s home. People who come in are not consumers. They are guests. For the first time the government in Massachusetts is attempting to treat churches like a business, but they are profoundly different.”
Churches, he added, have the right to freedom of expression and to operate according to their core beliefs without the threat of government.
Jennifer L. Levi, director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders’ Transgender Rights Project, said she believes the lawsuit is premature because no action has been taken against a church or member of the clergy. MCAD only added “transgender” to existing, non-discrimination laws, she said.
There is no categorical exemption for churches in any civil laws, she said, and there are contexts where churches rent out their function halls and they have to comply with state anti-discrimination laws.
“They are not exempt from state laws,” Ms. Levi said. “If someone walks into a church and the roof falls on their head, they are subject to liability,”
The law only applies to church functions that the public can access, she said, not in every situation.
“They can’t discriminate based on gender identity just like they cannot discriminate based on sex, race, religion and any other protected categories,” she said. “It doesn’t change the scope of the existing non-discrimination laws and I don’t see a basis for this complaint. This is really an effort on their part to stop enforcement of a really important law that was passed to protect a really vulnerable population.”
Jillian Fennimore, spokesperson for Attorney Maura Healey, said, “We are pleased that we finally have a law in place that protects transgender people from discrimination in public places. This law is about civil rights and is critical for people who were without full protection and equality under the law for too long.”
The lawsuit asks the court to suspend enforcement of the law against the churches while their lawsuit proceeds. The churches suing are Horizon Christian Fellowship, in Fitchburg; Abundant Life Church, in Swansea; House of Destiny Ministries, in Southbridge; and Faith Christian Fellowship in Haverhill.