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Religious Liberty Win for Massachusetts Churches

12-13-2016
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Four pastors in Massachusetts are dropping their lawsuit against the state after the attorney general's office revised the interpretation of a new gender identity anti-discrimination law which categorized churches as places of public accommodation.

The state's move protects the First Amendment rights  of Massachusetts churches to express their beliefs about gender and sexuality and operate their bathrooms in a manner consistent with their theology.

Classifying churches as places of public accommodation is virtually unprecedented and potentially opens them up to variety of anti-discrimination laws that could clash with their beliefs. 

Just last month, a federal judge struck down such a categorization in Iowa noting that "state and federal courts have held that churches and programs they host are not places of public accommodation."

In July, Massachusetts lawmakers amended the state's anti-discrimination law to prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation based on a person's stated gender identity. 

The trouble for churches came Sept. 1st, when the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination issued a "Gender Identity Guidance" that said churches could be considered as places of public accommodation under certain conditions.  "A church could be seen as place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public," said the commission. 

The guidance says that an individual's gender identity can be identified "by an evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held as a part of the person's core identity."

The guidance goes on to explain that preventing a person from using a bathroom or other sex-segregated facility that's consistent with their gender identity violates the law.  It also says that places of public accommodation should follow best practices, such as using pronouns that transgender people prefer, refraining from derogatory comments and avoiding gender-specific dress codes.

The attorney general's office also issued a "Gender Identity Guidance for Public Accommodations" and said that "houses of worship" are places of public accommodation.

Now, the attorney general's office says that its revision to the guidance removes the "categorical reference to 'houses of worship' as an example of a 'place of public accommodation.'" 

Genevieve Nadeau, Chief of the Civil Rights Division in the attorney general's office noted that the pastors' lawsuit "caused us to focus on these issues and to make this revision."

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