Catholic bookstore sues Jacksonville over law it says is a trans pronoun mandate

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A Catholic bookstore in Jacksonville, Florida, is suing the city to block a law it says could force the business to use a person’s preferred pronouns when they do not reflect the person’s biological sex, claiming the law violates its constitutional rights. 

The suit, filed by the Queen of Angels Catholic Bookstore in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Jacksonville Division, takes issue with the city’s Human Rights Ordinance.

The city’s anti-discrimination law was expanded in 2020 to include protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The bookstore filed the lawsuit because similar laws have been interpreted in such a way elsewhere in the country. 

The lawsuit argues that the law forces them to recognize transgender pronouns, including so-called “neopronouns” that do not reflect either the male or female gender, and prevents them from formalizing an official pronoun policy that is consistent with a Catholic understanding of sex and gender.

CNA reached out to the City of Jacksonville but a spokesperson declined to comment on litigation.

“Free speech is for everyone,” Rachel Csutoros, legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement. The bookstore is receiving pro bono legal services from ADF for this lawsuit. 

“Americans should be free to say what they believe without fear of government punishment,” Csutoros continued. “Christie [DeTrude], owner of Queen of Angels Catholic Bookstore, gladly serves everyone, but she can’t speak messages that go against her religious beliefs. Yet Jacksonville is illegally mandating Queen of Angels abandon its religious beliefs — the very faith that motivates the store to open its doors to customers every day.”

The city changed its anti-discrimination laws in 2017 to include discrimination based on “the gender-related identity, expression, or appearance of a person.” Although a court struck the law down for technical reasons related to the procedure by which it was adopted, the city council reintroduced and approved the language again in 2020.

According to city law, a person can be liable for discrimination through “difference in treatment” or “unlawful separation, segregation, or distinction directly or indirectly against a person because of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, disability, marital status, or familial status.”

The law applies to private businesses that are available to the public, such as the bookstore, and prohibits them from displaying information that suggests a person’s patronage is “unwelcome, objectionable, [or] unacceptable.” 

Even though Queen of Angels Catholic Bookstore has not been formally accused of violating the anti-discrimination law, the lawsuit claims the bookstore “chills its expression to avoid violating the law” and “must refrain from formalizing and distributing its pronoun policy and explaining its beliefs about gender identity.”

The suit argues the bookstore is “under immediate threat” daily and if the owners or employees did openly discuss their beliefs, the bookstore would face “cease-and-desist orders, expensive investigations, hearings, uncapped fines, attorney-fee awards, and unlimited damages.” 

Hal Frampton, who serves as senior counsel at ADF, told CNA these laws are “used by government officials across the country to essentially cancel people who disagree with gender ideology.”

“[The laws are] being used to say that you do have to speak the government’s message, [that] you do have to use the preferred pronouns,” Frampton added. 

The lawsuit claims the law violates the bookstore’s constitutional rights under the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment. It also claims the city law violates Florida’s statutory protection for the free exercise of religion. 

According to the lawsuit, the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion allows the bookstore owners to operate their business “in accordance with their religious beliefs” and that those operations include the blog it publishes, the policies it sets, and its communications with customers. 

The lawsuit also argues that the First Amendment’s free speech protections allow the bookstore to “adopt and act on certain speech-related policies” and “be free from overbroad and vague restrictions on speech that give enforcement officials unbridled discretion.” 

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In addition, it alleges that the law violates the due process clause in the 14th Amendment due to its vagueness. The lawyers argued that the law allows government officials to “arbitrarily prohibit some speech” and that it does not “give speakers sufficient notice regarding whether their desired speech violates Jacksonville’s law.”

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