St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel
St. Joseph is a Catholic parish located in St. Johns, Michigan. Since 1924, St. Joseph has operated a top-notch elementary school, St. Joseph Catholic School, that exists to pass on the Catholic faith to the next generation. Like Catholic parishes across the country, St. Joseph requires all staff to uphold Catholic teaching in word and deed, including regarding beliefs about gender, marriage and sexuality. It also follows Catholic teaching on issues like pronouns for staff and children and separate girls’ and boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms. However, a recent change to Michigan law threatens to make it illegal for St. Joseph to ensure that its school rules and those who serve its parish community uphold its religious beliefs.
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A Parish community dedicated to faith
Since 1857, St. Joseph Catholic Church has served the local Catholic community of St Johns, Michigan, as the only Catholic parish in town. In 1924, St Joseph expanded and opened an elementary school—St. Joseph Catholic School—to provide children in the area with a Catholic education rooted in the teachings of the Church. Crucial to St. Joseph’s ability to pass on its religious mission to its students is the employment of teachers and staff who support and advance Catholic doctrine. Like many Catholic parishes around the country, St. Joseph asks all staff—from kindergarten teachers to part-time bookkeepers—to be practicing Catholics and to uphold the tenets of the Catholic faith. In addition to staff requirements, every family that sends their child to St. Joseph is also expected to support the faith and mission of the school and its Catholic values.
Michigan law redefines sex
In July 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court reinterpreted a state civil rights statute’s definition of sex to include sexual orientation without any exemption for religious organizations like St. Joseph. In March 2023, the Michigan legislature wrote this into state law, expanding the civil rights law to expressly prohibit discrimination because of either sexual orientation or gender identity. Both the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and members of the Michigan legislature pointedly refused to include any religious accommodations, even though those exist in federal law and in the laws of most other states.
This new law would make it illegal for St Joseph to operate in accordance with the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage and sexuality. This threatens the school’s right to hire staff who will faithfully pass on the faith to the next generation and to run the school in a way that follows Catholic teaching. Not only that, but because St. Joseph’s opens its doors to the public, it faces the risk of being sued for discrimination because of its sincere religious beliefs about gender and marriage. It is at risk when visitors use its bathrooms, play on its sports fields, or when the local Knights of Columbus hall hosts receptions.
The law protects St. Joseph from attacks on its religious mission
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of religious groups—including churches and their schools—to operate in accordance with their religious mission, free from government interference. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently articulated this principle, most recently in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, where the Court held that religious institutions must have the freedom to make internal management decisions (like deciding who will teach and lead the religious community) free from government interference. Michigan’s redefinition of discrimination threatens St. Joseph’s right to create and maintain a parish and school environment that reflects its Catholic faith.