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Catholic parish sues Michigan over Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act

St. Joseph’s parish, located in the mid-Michigan town of St. Johns, asserts in a December 5th complaint that its religious liberty is threatened by a new interpretation of state law regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing is seen Nov. 30, 2021. (CNS photo/Dan Meloy, Detroit Catholic)

A parish in the Diocese of Lansing has just filed a federal civil rights complaint against the state of Michigan, asserting that its religious liberty is threatened by a new interpretation of state law.

In the complaint filed December 5, St. Joseph’s parish, located in the mid-Michigan town of St. Johns, takes issue with the state government’s reinterpretation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA). A recent State Supreme Court ruling redefined the term “sex discrimination” to include discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity.

Parish officials believe that with no exceptions for religious organizations, the ELCRA could make it illegal for St. Joseph parish and school to follow the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on sex, gender and marriage.

When Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act was passed in 1976, the act was intended to protect against discrimination on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status. Following twelve years after the federal Civil Rights Act was enacted nationwide, the ELCRA sought to ensure that Michigan’s businesses, schools, and organizations complied fully with that act, serving citizens equally.

But in 2019, two complaints were filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, demanding that the ELCRA be expanded to include gender identity. In that year, two customers – a same-sex couple and a transgender person – filed complaints against two Michigan companies. Rouch World, an event center, had refused to host a same-sex wedding; while Uprooted Electrolysis had denied hair removal service to a transgender person, claiming that the request, which was directly tied to the plaintiff’s gender identity, would violate the owner’s own religious beliefs pertaining to sexual orientation and gender.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a liberal Democrat who is openly lesbian, believed that the case should receive an expedited review; and in October 2021, on behalf of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) and its director, Nessel filed a bypass application in the state Supreme Court. The court agreed that the case warranted immediate review; and in February 2022, Nessel announced that she would argue the case before the Michigan Supreme Court.

“No person in this State,” Nessel said, “…should experience barriers to employment, housing, education, or public accommodations and services because of who they are or who they love, and yet for decades – despite the ELCRA’s clear prohibitions to the contrary, LGBTQ+ individuals have wrongly encountered these barriers.”

Nessel added that she would remain focused on fighting for laws that “properly reflect the diversity of our vibrant state and all who call Michigan home.”

In July 2021, Nessel won that case when the Michigan Supreme Court voted 5-2 that the word “sex” in Michigan’s civil rights law applies to sexual orientation and gender identity, and not just a person’s biological sex.

Parish officials believe that the problem with the proposed expansion of anti-discrimination laws in Michigan is that if the term “sex” is redefined to include sexual orientation and gender fluidity, and if that law is applied without religious exemptions, it could be seen as illegal for St. Joseph’s or any Catholic school to hire only staff – from kindergarten teachers to part-time bookkeepers – who will faithfully pass on the tenets of the faith to the next generation. Not only that, but because St. Joseph’s welcomes members of the public to its facilities, officials fear that there is the risk of being held liable for discrimination because of the Church’s sincere religious beliefs about gender and marriage.

Bishop Earl Boyea, spiritual leader of the Lansing Diocese, has expressed his support for St. Joseph’s church. “For almost a century,” Bishop Boyea said, “…Saint Joseph School has quietly and faithfully taught successive generations in the town of St. Johns to become good, saintly and virtuous citizens who are formed by the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Holy Church on all matters of faith and morals.”

“I therefore fully support the parish community of St. Joseph in seeking this important legal ruling to ensure that they – and all Catholic schools and institutions in Michigan – remain protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution in order to continue their God-given mission into the next century and beyond.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit organization which supports the free exercise of religion, has agreed to represent St. Joseph’s Church in their court challenge. Lori Windham, Becket Fund’s Vice President and Senior Counsel, said,

“St. Joseph parish exists to pass on the Catholic faith to the next generation. To accomplish that mission, it asks all its staff to uphold the Catholic faith in word and deed, both at the parish and its elementary school. Michigan’s recent redefinition of sex under state law threatens to undermine this religious mission by making it illegal for St. Joseph to follow the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on sex, gender and marriage.”

“We filed a lawsuit to protect St. Joseph’s right to live out its faith as a religious institution. Michigan cannot force the Catholic Church to compromise its religious character simply because its doors are open to all.”

Windham clarified that it was not the intent of the Becket Fund to overturn the ELCRA in its entirety – but only to ensure that religious organizations be exempted from certain provisions which conflict with Church teaching.

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About Kathy Schiffer 33 Articles
Kathy Schiffer has written for the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.


  1. “They” are out to destroy the Church, and my pastor says that we have no responsibility “to change the world around us.” All that’s required, he says, is “to love the person in front of you.” How does one counter an ordained priest’s misstatement?

  2. For those that may not know, Dana Nessel has a wife and has no sympathy for Christian people and their customs or beliefs. I believe she claims to be Jewish and does not celebrate Christmas.

    You can read about her other liberal legal exploits on the internet. While AG, she had became ill from drunkenness at the MSU/ U of M game in East Lansing a year ago, yet she is quick to pounce on any perceived societal wrong she can, and point the finger.

  3. The issues presented by Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act will require facing differences between “church” and “state.” Broadly, church focuses on individual practices and bringing together birds of a feather while state seeks for social conditions which foster options for birds of many colors. N. F. S. Grundtvig stated that freedom is not a matter of individual rights but is achieved socially by a society, e.g. free speech must also consider the listeners; freedom of worship must consider not only individual souls, but also the impact any particular form of worship has on a diverse community. It is the responsibility of a democratic form of government to devise legislation which will encourage social conditions which inspire individuals to contribute in a positive way to the pursuit of social success in the life of the community as a whole. There are many examples of such balancing acts at work in the natural world.

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