Religious Liberty Win: Mass. Backs Off Gender Identity Law That Could Have Jailed Pastors

By Liberty McArtor Published on December 12, 2016

The state of Massachusetts has backed off a regulation that could have landed pastors in jail for operating church functions according to their faith.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the non-profit legal organization representing four churches who sued the state over the controversial regulations announced the victory Monday, after the churches agreed to drop the lawsuit.

“No church should fear government punishment simply for serving its community consistently with its faith,” ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb said in a press release.

As The Stream previously reported, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination released in September an updated Gender Identity Guidance that declared, “places of public accommodation may not discriminate against, or restrict a person from services because of that person’s gender identity.”

That meant during certain church events and activities, church leaders would have been forced to allow a biological man to use women’s restrooms or other facilities if he claimed to identify as a woman, regardless of the church’s religious beliefs regarding gender.

Specifically, the Gender Identity Guidance originally stated that “Even 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.” 

As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh wrote in the Washington Post at the time,

[E]ven church “secular events,” which I take it means events that don’t involve overt worship, are generally viewed by the church as part of its ministry, and certainly as a means of the church modeling what it believes to be religiously sound behavior.

Punishment for violating these regulations included the possibility of a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. Pastors could have even been jailed for refusing to use a transgender person’s preferred pronouns. 

But the state backtracked after ADF initiated the legal case Horizon Christian Fellowship v. Williamson by filing a lawsuit on behalf of four churches in early October.

Almost exactly one month later, the Massachusetts Civil Rights Division responded with a letter to ADF, saying that “your lawsuit caused us to focus on these issues and to make this revision.” 

The Gender Identity Guidance has now been updated to say that the “law does not apply to a religious organization if subjecting the organization to the law would violate the organization’s First Amendment rights.” “Houses of worship” was also removed from the list of places of public accommodation from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s website.

ADF attorneys filed a notice of voluntary dismissal Monday.

“The government can’t encroach on the internal, religious practices of a church. The language revisions that our lawsuit prompted should ensure that doesn’t happen,” ADF Senior Counsel Steve O’Ban said in Monday’s press release. “The comments of commonwealth officials gave these churches reason for great concern, and so we are pleased wording changes have been made to respect the constitutionally protected freedoms these congregations and pastors have.”

ADF will be holding a press conference to discuss the state of the lawsuit on Wednesday, December 14 in Boston.

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