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Lansing church sues Michigan for religious liberty infringement

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J-P Mauro - published on 12/08/22

Michigan recently redefined "sexual discrimination" to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with no religious freedom protections.

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A Catholic church in the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, is challenging a recent State Supreme Court ruling that redefined “sexual discrimination” to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. St. Joseph’s Church argues that the changes made to the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) would not allow Catholic parishes and schools to teach and freely live their faith. 

The plaintiffs, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, point toward the 1st and 14th Amendments, which guarantee the freedom of religious expression and equal protections respectively. The Diocese of Lansing outlined their arguments in a December 6 Facebook post, which stated: 

The lawsuit filed by Becket highlights various scenarios where the new interpretation of the state civil rights act could undermine Saint Joseph’s constitutional right to religious liberty as enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

For example, it notes that Saint Joseph may be held liable for “sex” discrimination whenever biologically male students desire to use the female locker room or play on a female sports team, or whenever a biological male attendee at Holy Mass wants to use the female restroom.

The post continued to offer other examples that could land the church in hot water, such as if a same-sex couple sought to be married at St. Joseph’s or use the local Knights of Columbus hall for their reception. The plaintiffs fear that the new interpretation of ELCRA would penalize these Catholic entities for rejecting these requests based on Catholic teaching.

Lori Windham, Vice-President and Senior Counsel of Becket, wrote in the post: 

“Saint Joseph parish exists to pass on the Catholic faith to the next generation and to accomplish that mission, it asks all its staff to uphold the Catholic faith in word and deed, both at the parish and its elementary school.” Windham added, “Michigan’s recent redefinition of sex under state law threatens to undermine this religious mission by making it illegal for Saint Joseph to follow the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on sex, gender and marriage.”

The post goes on to note that St. Joseph’s has served the Catholic community of the town of Saint Johns since 1857, with an elementary school that has been active since 1924. Their school, which covers kindergarten through 6th grade, currently has more than 200 students enrolled and is still growing, recording an 8% increase to enrollment in the last five years. 

Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing commented: 

“For almost a century Saint Joseph School has quietly and faithfully taught successive generations of children in the town of Saint Johns to become good, saintly and virtuous citizens who are formed by the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Holy Church on all matters of faith and morals.”

Lansing State Journal notes that the goal of the lawsuit is not to repeal the updates to ELCRA, but to introduce stipulations that protect the Church’s ability to freely function as a religious entity. Windham said: 

“They’re not asking to invalidate the entire law,” she said. “They’re asking to be able to continue with their own religious beliefs and practices.”

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