Massachusetts churches sue over 'anti-bias' law
BOSTON (BP) -- Four Massachusetts churches and their pastors filed a pre-emptive lawsuit in October in an attempt to halt application of a newly amended state law requiring pastors to temper their speech and churches to allow transgender persons to use the bathroom of their choice.
In July, Massachusetts legislators amended General Law 272, known as "Crimes against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order," to add gender identity to the list of protected classes. Neither the law nor the amendment offer religious exemptions from compliance or name religious institutions as places of public accommodation. But in their interpretation of the law, the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination (MCAD) and Attorney General Maura Healey declared "houses of worship" can be subject to the rule and its penalties if they host a "secular" event.
The law also prohibits speech that "discriminates" or "incites" discrimination, which could apply to church staff offering biblical teaching about God's design for men, women and human sexuality.
Violators could be fined up to $2,500 and face up to one year in prison -- or both.
Churches chose to challenge the law before the state revoked their right to operate according to their faith. The complaint, filed Oct. 11 by Alliance Defending Freedom, asks a U.S. District Court to stop enforcement of the law against the plaintiffs while the court battle plays out. The suit contends the law violates the plaintiffs' rights under the U.S. Constitution's First and 14th Amendments. Healey and three MCAD members are named as defendants.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Horizon Christian Fellowship, Swansea Abundant Life Church, House of Destiny Ministries, Faith Christian Fellowship of Haverhill, and their pastors.
The complaint, Horizon Christian Fellowship v. Williamson, argues the interpretation of the law ignores the church's role as an institution of worship to God and service to the community. The two roles are not mutually exclusive.
"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," the lawsuit states. "Requiring the churches to allow individuals to use the facilities reserved for the opposite biological sex contradicts the churches' message about God's intention and purpose for human sexuality."
Pastors, speaking from the pulpit, a public forum, or on electronic media also could be held personally accountable to the law. Out of fear of reprisals, the pastors have begun to self-censor their speech, according to the lawsuit.
With no religious exemptions, the law that purports to protect chastity, morality, decency, and good order will be applied against churches on a case-by-case basis, according to MCAD. That, the lawsuit states, "invests in [MCAD] the power to decide which religious beliefs, practices, and doctrines of the churches regarding sex are acceptable, and which ones are not."