Catholic church, school lawsuits against Michigan civil rights law thrown out

Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act is not violating the rights of a Catholic church and school in the state, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Johns and Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids filed separate lawsuits in December, arguing new sex and gender protections in the law prevent the institutions from hiring and teaching according to their faith.

But Judge Jane Beckering in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids ruled that the Michigan Supreme Court’s upholding in July 2022 of those protections stands. This means, for example, a person can’t be denied a job based on those above factors.

ELCRA “does not fail to recognize religious freedoms,” Beckering wrote in her dismissal of St. Joseph’s suit.

She said the same in dismissing Sacred Heart’s suit, adding in both rulings that neither institution presented a credible imminent threat in their suits by enforcement of ELCRA.

Beckering also on Tuesday denied reconsideration of her March dismissal of a similar lawsuit filed by Christian Healthcare Centers, a religious alternative to medical treatment and insurance with locations in Grand Rapids and Newaygo.

Attorney General Dana Nessel, who was a defendant in all three cases, said in a statement Wednesday the suits were “unsupported by facts.”

“Under Michigan law, religious freedoms are already taken into consideration under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act when assessing discrimination claims,” Nessel said. “Our state’s residents can rest assured that Michigan’s recently enacted protections for the LGBTQ+ community will be enforced to the fullest extent as the constitution permits.”

Related: Michigan bans discrimination against employees who undergo abortions

St. Joseph church claimed, in part, the Supreme Court’s decision last year threatened its affiliated school’s “religious mission,” which includes teachings “that marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman, that sexual relations are limited to marriage, and that human beings are created as either male or female.”

Sacred Heart, similarly, claimed it would have to hire faculty and staff who oppose the faith, speak messages that violate doctrine and refrain from articulating beliefs in teaching and advertising to prospective students or job applicants.

“Rather than defy Catholic doctrine in these ways, Sacred Heart would shut down,” the school’s lawsuit stated.

St. Joseph also questioned whether it could carry out its activities or rent its facilities “without being held liable as a public accommodation.” Hypotheticals included a same-sex couple wanting to host a wedding at the church or “biologically male” students or Mass attendees wanting to use a female restroom.

Both institutions cited in their suits the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which provide freedom of religion and equal protection, respectively.

Sacred Heart and Christian Healthcare Centers have already filed an appeal, Nessel’s office said.

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