Four Massachusetts churches filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, Oct. 11, challenging the requirement under a new law that they open restrooms and shower facilities to individuals based on their gender identity, rather than their biological sex.
“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,” Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel to the national group Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement Tuesday. “Government officials have no business determining which church activities are religious and which ones aren’t.”
The plaintiff churches in the case are Horizon Christian Fellowship in Fitchburg, House of Destiny Ministries in Southbridge, Abundant Life Church in Swansea, and Faith Christian Fellowship in Haverhill. The churches have also asked the court to suspend enforcement of the law while the case proceeds.
The plaintiffs and attorneys bringing the new lawsuit said the law’s anti-discrimination language require churches and pastors “refrain from religious expression regarding sexuality that conflicts with the government’s views.” According to the complaint, the Legislature and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination “failed to provide an exemption for religious institutions.”
Gov. Charlie Baker signed the new law in July and it took effect Oct. 1.
The law allows transgender people to access sex-segregated locker rooms and bathrooms based on their gender identity rather than their anatomical sex. It bans discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations such as pools and restaurants. Supporters say it delivers long overdue anti-discrimination protections.
Attorney General Maura Healey said last week she expected no serious issues with compliance.
“We went through this a few years ago when there were protections for transgender people put in place in the law when it came to things like looking for an apartment or looking for a job or going to school. We saw after that that once implemented there were no incidents, there were no problems or difficulties with implementation. I expect the same thing to happen here,” Healey said.
The Massachusetts Family Institute is leading an effort to repeal the law through a statewide ballot question in 2018. A family institute official told State House News Service Tuesday that repeal proponents turned in 38,000 certified signatures before last week’s deadline. An official in Secretary of State William Galvin’s office said 32,375 certified signatures are required and he hoped by the end of the day to be able to announce the office’s official count.