Four Massachusetts churches on Tuesday filed a lawsuit asking to be exempted from a state law that requires public places to allow transgender people to use bathrooms in line with their gender identity.
Access to public bathrooms has become a flashpoint in the battle over transgender rights in the United States, after North Carolina earlier this year enacted a measure mandating that bathrooms and locker rooms be restricted according to a person’s biological gender.
The Horizon Christian Fellowship, the Swansea Abundant Life Assembly of God, the House of Destiny Ministries and the Faith
Christian Fellowship of Haverhill filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in Massachusetts, arguing the law violates their constitutional rights to freedom of religious expression and free speech.
“The Churches’ policies and practices regarding access to their changing rooms and restrooms flow logically and directly from their religious beliefs concerning God’s design for biological sex,” the lawsuit said.
The law did not provide exemptions for religious organizations, with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office saying on its website that “houses of worship” are public places.
“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 Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing four Massachusetts churches. “Government officials have no business determining which church activities are religious and which ones aren’t.”
The lawsuit is seeking an injunction from the law for religious organizations and attorneys fees.
“The government shouldn’t encroach on the internal, religious practices of a church,” said Steve O’Ban, senior counsel for ADF. “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.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination were named as defendants in the case. Neither could be reached for comment on Tuesday night.
Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Healey’s office, told the MassLive news website the office would not comment on the lawsuit as they are still reviewing it.
Fennimore added however, “We are pleased that we finally have a law in place that protects transgender people from discrimination in public places. This law is about civil rights and is critical for people who were without full protection and equality under the law for too long.”
The lawsuit makes Massachusetts the latest battleground for transgender rights.
A U.S. judge in August blocked an Obama administration policy that public schools should allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice, granting a nationwide injunction sought by 13 dissenting states.
Meanwhile, lawmakers elsewhere have moved to expand protections for transgender people. Late last month California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill opening single-stall public restrooms to anyone, regardless of gender. The state already bars discrimination against transgender people, including in public bathrooms.
— by Curtis Skinner | Reuters
CNJ staff added to this report