Michigan Parish Files Court Appeal to Undercut LGBTQ+ Protections

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI

A Michigan Catholic parish and school have appealed a court ruling against its challenge of a state law enhancing non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, and, troublingly, the school’s cause is becoming an interfaith effort.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Church and its affiliated school in Grand Rapids filed its appeal in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month. The lawsuit against two Michigan state government officials, Attorney General Dana Nessel and director of the Department of Civil Rights John Johnson, claims that changes to the state’s Civil Rights Act infringe of the school’s religious liberty.

Earlier this year, Michigan legislators and Governor Gretchen Whitmer added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Two Catholic parishes, Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Grand Rapids, and St. Joseph’s Church in the city of St. John’s, had the support of the Lansing Diocese when they sued the state over the new law. But that lawsuit was dismissed by District Court Judge Jane Beckering on the grounds the churches had no standing to sue because they had not been harmed. In the appeal, reported The Christian Post, the plaintiff now claims:

“[C]hanges to state law make it ‘illegal for Sacred Heart to hire and retain only faculty and staff who support, live and model the Catholic faith and its doctrines.’ This leads to concerns that ‘Sacred Heart cannot hire only those employees who agree with Catholic teaching on marriage, sexuality, and gender identity’ while facing pressure to ‘hire and retain those who advocate a vision of human flourishing that is antithetical to Church doctrine.’

“Asserting that state law now ‘prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in student admission, retention, and discipline,’ the document suggested that ‘Sacred Heart can’t secure student agreement to abide by the Church’s teachings on sexual orientation and gender identity’ and will lose the ability to take ‘disciplinary action against students who violate the Church’s doctrine on these matters.'”

In other words, Sacred Heart of Jesus’ leaders are worried they will not be able to fire LGBTQ+ employees and discipline LGBTQ+ students at will.

Unfortunately, the crusade by right wing Catholics to vacate non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ is finding interfaith support.

According to The Christian Postamici briefs for the Circuit Court appeal came from conservative Jewish and Muslim groups who claim to defend religious liberty. Already, several Evangelical Christian groups had done likewise. In the brief from the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islamic Religious Freedom Action Team, the groups argue they have “no position on which party should prevail in this specific appeal.” Yet, they continued by essentially arguing in support of the Catholic church’s case:

“‘The coreligionist exemption allows religious organizations to determine that certain positions, including non-ministerial ones, are so imbued with religious significance that those positions should be occupied only by employees who assent and adhere to certain religious tenets. . .The coreligionist exemption is a critical precedent that allows religious groups to continue their existence and their purpose by guaranteeing their right to associate, through employment, with those who share the faith of the religious group and exemplify that faith by the way they live.'”

In recent decades, as the U.S. episcopate veered right, ecumenical and interfaith efforts that had surged in the post-Vatican II years diminished. It is sad that such efforts are now being resurrected, not to find peace and understanding, but to fight against the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Right-wing U.S. Catholics’ obsession with gender and sexual minorities is coming to taint nearly every aspect of the church. This lawsuit by Sacred Heart of Jesus Church only further damages hopes of living in a peaceful and pluralistic society.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, December 2, 2023

1 reply
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment, Robert. Further, it seems to me that the language used by church leaders is asking the court to allow the Church to not only discriminate, terminate and/or deny employment which sanction’s harassment in language and actions towards faculty and students all in the name of God. This is why the institutional church has lost its credibility for me.


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