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MI Catholic school to 6th Circuit: Let us continue to live out our faith

ADF attorneys represent Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, academy, parents in lawsuit against state officials
A redefined Michigan law is threatening to violate the First Amendment freedoms of Sacred Heart Academy

CINCINNATI – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a Grand Rapids–based parish and Catholic school, and several of the school’s families, filed their opening brief Wednesday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit after a lower court dismissed their case. The school and parents filed suit last December, urging the courts to protect the school’s constitutionally protected right to operate as a religious school.

The Michigan Legislature recently amended the Michigan Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation and gender identity but provided no protection for religious organizations that believe marriage between one man and one woman and the immutability of sex irrefutably support human flourishing. That change requires Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and its school, Sacred Heart Academy, to hire faculty and staff who lead lives in direct opposition to the Catholic faith, speak messages that violate Church doctrine, and refrain from articulating Catholic beliefs in teaching its students and when advertising the school to prospective students or job applicants. The amendment also threatens the rights of parents—including the three families who have joined the lawsuit—who specifically chose to send their children to Sacred Heart Academy because the school aligns with their values and religious beliefs.

“As a federal court concluded in another case involving a Catholic social-service organization, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s targeting creates a ‘strong inference’ that Michigan’s ‘real target is the religious beliefs’ of the Catholic Church ‘and not discriminatory conduct.’ Here, Michigan is forcing Sacred Heart to make an unconstitutional and unconscionable choice between teaching and practicing the Catholic faith or closing their doors forever, while denying parents of the right to direct the upbringing and education of their children,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish has faithfully served Grand Rapids families for more than a century, and its school provides a rich academic and spiritual environment for hundreds of children. We urge the 6th Circuit to allow their lawsuit to continue so they can take steps toward serving their community without fear of government punishment.”

Polish immigrants founded Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish more than a century ago. The parish-run academy exists to support parents by providing their children with a classical, Catholic education and serves nearly 400 children from pre-K through 12th grade. The parents who joined the lawsuit all have children attending Sacred Heart Academy.

In their brief in Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish v. Nessel, ADF attorneys explain that the Michigan law provides no protection for religious institutions: “Unlike most similar state laws, Michigan’s Act does not exempt religious organizations, so Sacred Heart falls within its ambit. After the Michigan Legislature expanded the law to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity, the Act constrains Sacred Heart from fulfilling its mission in multiple ways.”

The brief also argues that Sacred Heart has every reason to believe it will face government punishment for living in accordance with their beliefs: “Before the ink dried on these amendments, Attorney General Nessel was aggressively advocating enforcement. She campaigned on the principle that Catholic views on marriage constitute ‘hate’ and opposed a Michigan law protecting the religious liberty rights of adoption and foster agencies as ‘discriminatory animus.’” Sacred Heart argues that this puts them undeniably at risk.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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John Bursch
John Bursch
Senior Counsel, Vice President of Appellate Advocacy
John Bursch is senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy with Alliance Defending Freedom.