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St. Johns Catholic church files lawsuit against Nessel over civil rights law

"My Trusty Gavel" by flickr user steakpinball -

A Catholic church in St. Johns within the Diocese of Lansing is suing Attorney General Dana Nessel and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights over recent changes to the state’s civil rights laws.

A ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court this summer said that members of the LGBTQ community are protected from discrimination by the state’s civil rights laws. The Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and the justices concluded in a 5-2 decision that the law also applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.

St. Joseph’s Parish in St. Johns says the change could prevent them from complying with Catholic principles on marriage and sexuality. They argue the updated law could violate their right to freedom of religion.

Lori Windham is a Senior Counsel at Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington D.C.-based firm representing the church in the case. She says the updated law could prevent the church and its school from operating as they always have.

“St. Joseph's Parish, when it's trying to hire for its Catholic school, could be liable for employment discrimination if they ask that their employees be Catholic and agree with and agree to live out the Catholic faith,” she said.

The suit bears resemblance to a case currently being evaluated in the U.S. Supreme Court. That issue involves a web designer from Colorado arguing she doesn't want to serve same-sex couples if it would violate her personal beliefs.

Windham says that case differs from the church's complaint because it involves free speech rights whereas the Michigan case invokes freedom of religion.

She says the church doesn’t want to overturn the civil rights law, but it does want clarity on how it applies to religious institutions.

“We're optimistic that the church will be protected because the federal government and most states have protections for religious organizations to be able to live out their faith,” Windham said.

Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing said in a statement that he supports the lawsuit. He hopes a future ruling will reinforce First Amendment protections in Michigan for the Catholic Church.

The Attorney General’s office says it hasn’t received the lawsuit yet. The office had no further comments.