Horizon Christian Fellowship v. Williamson
What's at stake
- The freedom of churches to use their houses of worship consistently with their beliefs without being threatened by the government.
Horizon Christian Fellowship, Swansea Abundant Life Assembly of God, House of Destiny Ministries (also known as Iglesia Casa de Destino), and Faith Christian Fellowship of Haverhill are four diverse Massachusetts churches that want to impact their communities with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. But the Commonwealth of Massachusetts threatened these churches with fines and imprisonment simply for operating consistently with their faith.
In July 2016, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law adding gender identity to the state’s public accommodations law. Although the public accommodations statute does not expressly cover churches, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) issued a guidance document stating that when churches host events that MCAD views as “secular” — like spaghetti suppers — churches are public accommodations and must comply with the gender identity law. The state’s highest law enforcement officer, the attorney general, also declared on her website that houses of worship are public accommodations. Violations of the law are punished with civil penalties and jail time.
The practical effect of this law was to force churches to open their sensitive areas — like changing rooms and restrooms — to members of the opposite biological sex. This requirement conflicts with the religious beliefs of these churches regarding God's design for human sexuality.
Alliance Defending Freedom represented Horizon Christian Fellowship, Swansea Abundant Life Church, House of Destiny Ministries, Faith Christian Fellowship of Haverhill, and their pastors, in a pre-enforcement lawsuit to protect the churches' and their pastors’ freedom to operate their houses of worship consistent with their faith.
Thankfully, commonwealth officials voluntarily reversed course and admitted that the First Amendment protects a church’s freedom to operate consistently with its faith even when engaged in community outreach activities. On December 12, 2016, the four Massachusetts churches and their pastors voluntarily dismissed their lawsuit.
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.
Our role in this case
Alliance Defending Freedom served as lead counsel for the churches and their pastors free of charge.