A Michigan Church Defends its Religious Liberty

A Catholic parish in St. John’s, Michigan has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the state, claiming the parish’s religious liberty is imperiled by a new interpretation of the state’s comprehensive civil-rights statute, redefining “sex discrimination” to include “sexual orientation or gender identity.”  The new version doesn’t include any religious exemptions. 

St. Joseph’s parish serves 900 families, in addition to operating a Catholic school for 200 students from kindergarten to sixth grade.  But according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who filed the lawsuit on the parish’s behalf, the new interpretation of the law effectively makes “it illegal for St Joseph to operate in accordance with the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage and sexuality.”  It also poses a threat to St. Joseph’s “right to hire staff who will faithfully pass on the tenets of the faith to the next generation.”  And because the church welcomes the public to attend services and use its facilities, it could be “held liable for discrimination because of its sincere religious beliefs about gender and marriage.” 

It was last July that activist justices made their ruling on the state’s statute banning discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status, and, so far, no discrimination claims based on the new interpretation have been reported.  But there’s good reason for St. Joseph taking pre-emptive action: in November, Michigan’s radical, anti-Christian attorney general, Dana Nessel, was reelected.

It was Nessel who “expedited” two gender-identity claims all the way to the state’s highest court, knowing they’d apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII’s “because of sex” language included sexual orientation.  But the Michigan ruling says nothing about religious exemptions for faith-based organizations, leaving religious groups a tempting target for litigants who equate traditional views on sexuality and marriage with discrimination, hate, and bigotry. 

Dana Nessel fits this category, her career spent projecting her own anti-religious bigotry onto those she hates.  In 2014, when a coalition of Christian groups filed legal briefs in support of Michigan’s voter-approve ban on same-sex marriage, Nessel described them all “as “’a radical fringe’ engaged in ‘the demagoguery of hate.’”  In her first campaign for attorney general in 2018 Nessel vowed not to defend Michigan’s religious freedom statute, “contending that the only purpose of the statute is discriminatory animus,” and calling all who supported it “‘hate-mongers’ who disliked gay people more than they cared about children.”

Nessel was using the same humbug when she supported a 2017 ACLU lawsuit trying to force Michigan to stop contracting with faith-based adoption agencies because their religious beliefs about marriage prevented them from certifying same-sex couples.  For Michigan to contract with organizations like Catholic Charities, Nessel said, meant “fewer children adopted into nurturing, loving and otherwise qualified homes.”  But she really meant there would be fewer children being placed with gay couples.  As Margot Cleveland noted at the time, “It’s not about the children. It’s never about the children.” 

Nessel’s true constituents -- the LGBTQ+ community and Planned Parenthood -- leave no room for the people of Michigan.  She consistently refuses to defend laws she dislikes, even undermining them by cooperating with leftist groups engaged in collusive litigation.  Michigan’s religious-freedom statute was passed in anticipation of just the kind of legal attack the ACLU lawsuit represented, and Nessel’s predecessor as AG made the statute central to the state’s defense.  But the election intervened, and as soon as Nessel took office she abandoned the state’s defense, and settled with the ACLU for everything they wanted.  (She also withdrew the state from eight other lawsuits dealing with abortion, LGBT rights, and religious freedom, in which her predecessor AG joined other states filing amicus briefs.)  Nessel then used her agreement with the ACLU to order Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services to stop contracting with adoption agencies that refused to certify same-sex couples. 

The Becket Fund filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of one of the Catholic adoption agencies, St. Vincent, including Nessel as a defendant in her capacity as attorney general.  The court promptly halted Nessel's policy as obviously “target[ing] St. Vincent’s religious beliefs,” citing Nessel’s personal comments during  the campaign that “made St. Vincent’s belief and practice a campaign issue by calling it hate.” 

It wasn’t until January of this year that St. Vincent’s lawsuit against the ACLU was finally resolved in the adoption agency’s favor.  Nessel’s blind stubbornness cost the taxpayers a $550,000 settlement.

This summer, Nessel’s malice towards believers showed itself again, when a wave of pro-abortion violence against churches, crisis pregnancy centers, and other pro-life organizations erupted in response to the leak of the draft Dobbs decision.  Several Michigan churches and pro-life facilities were attacked, and groups like Jane’s Revenge and Ruth Sent Us went out of their way to take credit, emailing threats, posting communiques and ultimatums for pregnancy centers to shut down or suffer “increasingly drastic measures… [that] may not come in the form of something so easily cleaned up as fire and graffiti.” 

These attacks fall smack in the middle of Nessel’s own definition of “hate crime,” i.e. a “criminal act… motivated by an offender’s bias against a particular group.”  And she’s not one to wait to be asked to intervene in matters she cares about, like shutting down a critical energy pipeline or heading off potential “hate crimes” when they’re still just newly hatched -- and perfectly legal -- hate incidents.  But Nessel’s response to the pro-abortion vandalism and arsons was a barely stifled yawn.  When a Michigan congressman called out the attacks as “domestic terrorism,” Nessel’s blasé reaction was that she hadn’t been contacted by the congressman, “but that her office’s Hate Crimes & Domestic Terrorism Unit could look into the matter, if it was asked to.” 

In other words, she might stop filing her nails long enough to look into whoever’s harassing those hated pro-lifers and Catholics right under her nose. 

She’s still filing her nails.

Without any protections for religious liberty, the new interpretation of Michigan’s civil-rights law means faith-based organizations facing discrimination charges for everything from not hiring gender-weird teachers who openly mock Church teaching; to not allowing men in cocktail dresses to use the ladies’ room during Mass; to denying strapping male athletes use of the girls’ locker room; to not renting out facilities for same-sex weddings; or even making or publishing any “statement” that “’indicates’ ‘an individual’s patronage of or presence... is,’ among other things, ‘unwelcome’ because of St. Joseph’s religious teachings on human sexuality.”  

If you can picture the Ayatollah finally getting his hands on the bomb, you know what Dana Nessel has planned for a civil-rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity -- with no protections for religious liberty.  Now, back in office with no election to worry about, she’ll quickly resume persecuting people who don’t share her radical views: and at the top of her target list will be people who hold the Biblical view that God created us male and female, and that He forbids the murder of unborn human life. 

Every like-minded Michigan believer can be grateful that St. Joseph parish, and the Becket Fund, aren’t waiting for this hostile attorney general to pounce.

T.R. Clancy looks at the world from Dearborn, Michigan.  You can email him at trclancy@yahoo.com.

Image: Public domain

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