Catholic parishes challenge Michigan civil rights law on sexual orientation, gender identity

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St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Johns, Mich., is pictured in an undated photo. This is one of two Catholic parishes in Michigan asking a federal court to protect its ability to hire staff who agree with its religious beliefs without government interference. (OSV News photo/courtesy of St. Joseph Catholic Church)

(OSV News) — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit June 11 heard legal challenges filed by two Catholic parishes in Michigan against the state’s definition of sexual orientation that they say prohibits them from freely hiring employees according to the tenets of their faith.

In separate suits in 2022, St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Johns and Sacred Heart Parish in Grand Rapids challenged a state civil rights statute’s definition of sex to include sexual orientation without what they argued were appropriate exceptions for religious organizations.

The suits name state Attorney General Dana Nessel, the state’s Department of Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Commission.

Michigan Supreme Court ruling on Civil Rights Act

The Michigan Supreme Court found in 2022 that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected under the state’s 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, including protections against being denied a job on those grounds. The court’s finding came in its ruling against two faith-based businesses who sued over a 2018 memo issued by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights interpreting those two categories as being part of the civil rights law.

In 2023, a Michigan district court dismissed the parishes’ cases, but both appealed later that year.

In its complaint, St. Joseph alleged the law makes it unlawful for it to follow “the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church,” including its teachings on marriage and human sexuality.

In court on June 11, Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch questioned whether the challengers could in effect preemptively challenge the law before a hypothetical violation of it.

“I think all of us recognize the importance of the issues here and the importance of religious entities’ ability to act on their own faith and beliefs,” Stranch said. “The question here is what does it take to bring a case before a court, as opposed to beginning with the administrative opportunities and seeing that through to understand whether there is standing that remains for individuals who want to bring claims in court.”

William Haun, senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement on the St. Joseph case, “Michiganders don’t need a permission slip from bureaucrats in Lansing to practice their religious beliefs. The court should reject this irresponsible law and let institutions like St. Joseph get back to freely serving in their schools, churches, and communities.”

Cody Barnett, Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel, said in a statement in regard to the Sacred Heart case, “The Constitution is clear: Religious schools are free to operate according to their beliefs.”

“A federal district court — as well as the U.S. Supreme Court — have concluded that government officials can’t target faith-based organizations simply for adhering to their religious beliefs,” Barnett said. “Michigan is forcing Sacred Heart to make an impossible choice between teaching and practicing the Catholic faith or closing their doors forever — all while denying parents the right to direct the upbringing and education of their children. The parish has faithfully served Grand Rapids families for more than a century, and its school provides a rich academic and spiritual environment for hundreds of children.”

“We are urging the 6th Circuit to allow their lawsuit to continue so they can take steps toward serving their community without fear of government punishment,” he said.

Christian Healthcare Centers Inc., a nonprofit medical services organization, also separately challenged the law.

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.