Churches withdraw lawsuit after clarification that transgender protection law does not violate their rights or religious freedom.
In October 2016, four Massachusetts churches represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom group sued the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and members of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. The lawsuit arose from the new Massachusetts transgender anti-discrimination law. In their submission to the court, the four churches stated that the law violated their religious freedom by requiring them to allow transgender individuals to use bathrooms and changing rooms conforming to their gender identity. That lawsuit has now been withdrawn following clarification from the Attorney General’s office.
Healey’s office stated that the new transgender anti-discrimination law only applies to churches in very narrow and specific instances, thus removing the need for the lawsuit. In court filings on behalf of Attorney General Healey, attorneys remarked that the potential conflict areas in the law that churches were worried about such as offering bathrooms to transgenders in their community outreach programs, worship services and Sunday school classes were already exempt from the public accommodations law due to the First Amendment. The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom and builds a wall separating the state and religion.
The churches that were involved in the lawsuit include: Horizon Christian Fellowship in Fitchburg, Abundant Life Church in Swansea, House of Destiny Ministries in Southbridge and Faith Christian Fellowship in Haverhill. Lawyers for the churches stated that they were satisfied with the changes made by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in the guidelines for implementation of the new anti-discrimination law hence they would be dropping the lawsuit.
Christiana Holcomb, the legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom remarked, “We accomplished what we set out to do, to ensure pastors and churches across the state of Massachusetts were free to teach their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship in a way consistent with those beliefs." Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Healey commented, “We are pleased that the plaintiffs have voluntarily dismissed this case. This law provides important protections for transgender people who were without full protection and equality under the law for too long."
— Phillip Bethancourt (@pbethancourt) December 15, 2016
The new transgender anti-discrimination law was passed and signed by the Governor in July. The law prohibits discrimination against transgender people in places of public accommodation. Such places include bathrooms, restaurants or locker rooms. Churches were thought to be exempted from this, but when the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination published its guidelines, churches were seen to be subject to the law if they held a secular event open to the general public. The response from churches was that everything they do has a religious connotation to it and thus cannot be viewed at secular at any given moment. While filing their lawsuit, the churches through their representative commented, “In all the Churches' activities, they are communicating their understanding of God's truth, and refraining from communicating messages that violate the Churches' understanding of God's truth.” Holcomb further stated that the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination was not qualified to determine what was secular and what was religious, and that this was something protected against by the First Amendment.
Healey’s office’s clarification removed the need for the lawsuit, even as opponents to the governor plot to replace the law and to use this intention as a campaign tactic in 2018.
- Mass Live – “Christian group sues to exempt churches from Massachusetts transgender anti-discrimination law”
- Mass Live – “Churches withdraw lawsuit against Massachusetts transgender anti-discrimination law”
- LGBTQ Nation
- Washington Blade
- Alliance Defending Freedom