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Massachusetts churches file suit to challenge law forcing them to speak, act contrary to their faith

ADF attorneys represent four congregations in case against commonwealth officials

BOSTON – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing four Massachusetts churches and their pastors filed suit in federal court Tuesday to protect their freedom to express views consistent with their faith and operate their facilities in a manner that doesn’t violate their core religious beliefs.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and Attorney General Maura Healey both interpret 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 commission and attorney general also intend to force churches and pastors to refrain from religious expression regarding sexuality that conflicts with the government’s views.

“The government shouldn’t encroach on the internal, religious practices of a church,” said ADF Senior Counsel Steve O’Ban. “Neither the commission nor the attorney general has the constitutional authority to dictate how any church uses its facility or what public statements a church can make concerning a deeply held religious belief, such as on human sexuality.”

The churches bringing the suit against Massachusetts officials in Horizon Christian Fellowship v. Williamson in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Eastern Division, are Horizon Christian Fellowship in Fitchburg, Abundant Life Church in Swansea, House of Destiny Ministries in Southbridge, and Faith Christian Fellowship in Haverhill. They and their pastors have also filed a motion with the court asking it to suspend enforcement of the public accommodations law against the churches while their lawsuit proceeds.

In July 2016, the Massachusetts Legislature added “gender identity” as a protected class to the commonwealth’s public accommodation laws and directed the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and then attorney general to issue regulations or guidance by Sept. 1. On that date, the commission issued its “Gender Identity Guidance,” which states that “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.” Healey then issued her own “Gender Identity Guidance for Public Accommodation,” saying on her website that “houses of worship” are places of public accommodation.

“All events held at a church on its property have a religious purpose, and the government has no authority to violate the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion and speech,” explained ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Government officials have no business determining which church activities are religious and which ones aren’t.”

As the ADF complaint points out, “The Legislature and MCAD failed to provide an exemption for religious institutions, nor did MCAD attempt to define the ‘secular activities’ that it believed might subject a church to the Act, other than the woefully inadequate and confusing ‘spaghetti supper’ test. Indeed, MCAD expressly stated that it would not provide an objective standard, but would review a charge ‘involving religious institutions or religious exemptions…on a case-by-case-basis.’ Thus, a pastor, other church leader, or a court must guess as to which of the church’s activities subject it to the severe sanctions of the Act, which include fines of $50,000 per violation, up to 365 days in jail, and attorneys’ fees.”

Philip D. Moran and Andrew Beckwith, two of nearly 3,100 private attorneys allied with ADF, are local counsel in the case on behalf of the churches.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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Christiana Kiefer
Christiana Kiefer
Senior Counsel
Christiana (Holcomb) Kiefer serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where she is a key member of the Center for Conscience Initiatives.