For now, at least, it appears churches in Massachusetts have retained their constitutional right to operate according to their own religious beliefs free of overreaching state mandates.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit law firm, filed a lawsuit in October on behalf of four Massachusetts churches and their pastors, challenging a requirement from the state’s Commission Against Discrimination mandating that churches be treated as “public accommodations” with respect to bathroom laws. The lawsuit claimed the state had illegally infringed on the churches’ constitutional right to freedom of religion when it mandated that churches comply with the state’s open-gender bathroom regulations any time they hold functions that are open to the public – which are, ostensibly, all of them.
The state committee had originally decreed 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 general public. All persons, regardless of gender identity, shall have the right to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation.
On Monday, however, state officials backed off from the original mandate omitted “houses of worship” from their “discrimination” clause, ADF stated in a press release. The firm subsequently withdrew their lawsuit in response to the changes.
According to ADF, the state has amended its regulations to state 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.”
“What’s sad is that this fundamental right had to be affirmed at all,” ADF noted after pulling their lawsuit.
“While this is good news for the freedom of religion and speech for churches, the fact that this lawsuit was even necessary should be troubling,” the group stated in a press release following the state’s announcement.
“When churches are being forced to rethink outreach events such as Thanksgiving meals for the needy because the state might use that as an avenue to force them to abandon their beliefs, that’s probably a good indication that its First Amendment rights are being violated,” ADF added, noting that some Massachusetts churches had considered canceling charitable holiday events over fears that state officials would use the gatherings as a time to advance their own secular political agenda.
For now, however, ADF noted that the state’s retreat on its own blatantly unconstitutional anti-discrimination laws is a victory for the First Amendment, and particularly for those with deeply held religious beliefs.
“The government can’t encroach on the internal, religious practices of a church,” said ADF Senior Counsel Steve O’Ban in ADF’s statement. “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.”