A Catholic parish in central Michigan is suing the state attorney general over the state Supreme Court’s recent redefinition of “sex” discrimination as encompassing sexual orientation and gender identity, arguing that the redefinition, among other things, threatens the parish’s ability to hire people who model the Church’s teachings. 

St. Joseph, the only parish in the town of St. Johns, about 30 minutes north of Lansing, also operates an elementary school. In a legal filing dated Dec. 5, lawyers for the parish argued that as a Catholic institution, St. Joseph hires employees and teachers who are expected to “uphold Catholic teachings in word and deed.” Parents and students, too, enter into an agreement with the school “to live their lives in a way that supports, rather than opposes, the mission of our school and our faith beliefs.”

A July ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court redefined “sex” in a 1976 Michigan anti-discrimination law, the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, to include distinctions made based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Attorneys for the nonprofit law firm Becket argue that the redefinition of sex discrimination in Michigan threatens St. Joseph’s ability to advertise for and hire employees who model the teachings of the Catholic Church because the law does not include a religious exemption. 

“Michigan’s new understanding of ‘sex’ discrimination deems it unlawful for St. Joseph’s to follow the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church, including its teaching 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,” the legal filing contends.

“St. Joseph’s religious decisions regarding how to advance its mission and ministry are protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Michigan cannot force the Catholic Church to compromise its religious character simply as a function of its doors being open to all.”

In addition to Attorney General Dana Nessel, the suit names the state Department of Civil Rights. The parish is seeking an injunction barring the state from enforcing the anti-discrimination law in a way that violates the parish’s religious autonomy rights.

Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing expressed his support for the parish in a Dec. 6 statement. 

“For almost a century St. Joseph School has quietly and faithfully taught successive generations of children in the town of St. 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,” Boyea wrote. 

“I therefore fully support the parish community of St. Joseph in seeking this important legal ruling to ensure that they — and all Catholic schools and institutions in Michigan — remain protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in order to continue their God-given mission into the next century and beyond.”

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The legal filing notes that beyond its hiring practices, St. Joseph could 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 if a biological male attendee at Mass wants to use the female restroom; or in the case of a person wishing to hold a same-sex wedding at the church. 

Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, told the Lansing State Journal that St. Joseph is not interested in repealing the updated Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act. 

“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.”

Other lawsuits related to a redefinition of sex discrimination are making their way through U.S. courts, including the Supreme Court. On Monday, the court heard oral arguments in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, a suit brought by a Colorado graphic artist and website designer who refuses to provide creative services that she says conflict with her Christian faith, including ones that celebrate same-sex weddings. Her case challenges Colorado officials, including the director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division. 

That case is similar to 2018’s Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a bakery rejected making a cake for a same-sex wedding because of its owner’s religious beliefs. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission argued that this was an instance of unjust discrimination, but the Supreme Court ruled the commission “showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating” the owner’s objection.