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Massachusetts churches free to serve their communities without being forced to abandon beliefs
ADF lawsuit prompts state officials to reverse course, respect churches’ religious freedom
WHO: ADF attorney and allied attorney, pastors who filed suit against Massachusetts officials
WHAT: News conference regarding lawsuit, Horizon Christian Fellowship v. Williamson
WHEN: Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 1 p.m. EST
WHERE: Congregation Lion of Judah, 68 Northampton St., Boston
Monday, December 12, 2016
BOSTON – Four Massachusetts churches and their pastors, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, are voluntarily dismissing their lawsuit against commonwealth officials after it prompted them to admit that the First Amendment protects a church’s freedom to operate consistently with its faith even when engaged in community outreach activities—like spaghetti suppers—because they are part of a church’s religious expression. Commonwealth officials revised their official Gender Identity Guidance and website language, which now protects the freedom of churches to express views consistent with their faith and operate their facilities in a manner that doesn’t violate their core religious beliefs.
In a Nov. 7 letter to the churches and pastors following language changes on the Attorney General’s website, Genevieve Nadeau, chief of the Civil Rights Division, wrote, “Your lawsuit caused us to focus on these issues and to make this revision….” A news conference will be held on Wednesday at 1 p.m. EST at Congregation Lion of Judah to discuss the status of the lawsuit.
“The government can’t encroach on the internal, religious practices of a church. The language revisions that our lawsuit prompted should ensure that doesn’t happen,” said ADF Senior Counsel Steve O’Ban. “The comments of commonwealth officials gave these churches reason for great concern, and so we are pleased wording changes have been made to respect the constitutionally protected freedoms these congregations and pastors have.”
Originally, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and Attorney General Maura Healey both interpreted the commonwealth’s public accommodations laws, as amended by the Legislature in July, to force churches to open church changing rooms, shower facilities, restrooms, and other intimate areas based on their perceived gender identity, and not their biological sex, in violation of the churches’ religious beliefs. Because those laws also prohibit covered entities from making statements intended “to discriminate” or to “incite” others to do so, the churches and pastors could have been forced to refrain from communicating their beliefs about biological sex because they conflict with the government’s views.
The commission’s original language in its Gender Identity Guidance said, “Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the public.” In response to the lawsuit, that language has been replaced with wording that says that the “law does not apply to a religious organization if subjecting the organization to the law would violate the organization’s First Amendment rights.”
Also in response to the suit, the Attorney General’s Office revised its website to remove its categorical reference to “houses of worship” as an example of a “place of public accommodation.” In her letter to the churches, Nadeau noted that “an unqualified reference to ‘houses of worship’ was inconsistent” with Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court precedent.
“No church should fear government punishment simply for serving its community consistently with its faith. Massachusetts officials made the right decision to respect these churches’ freedom of religion and speech,” explained ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “We will continue to monitor the situation in Massachusetts to make sure those freedoms continue to be respected.”
The churches that brought the suit against Massachusetts officials in Horizon Christian Fellowship v. Williamson in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Eastern Division, were Horizon Christian Fellowship in Fitchburg, Abundant Life Church in Swansea, House of Destiny Ministries in Southbridge, and Faith Christian Fellowship in Haverhill. The ADF attorneys representing them filed anotice of voluntary dismissal with the court on Monday.
Philip D. Moran and Andrew Beckwith, two of more than 3,100 private attorneys allied with ADF, were local counsel in the case on behalf of the churches and pastors.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.