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. However, a recent reinterpretation of Michigan law threatens to make it illegal for St. Joseph to ensure that those who serve its parish community uphold and adhere to 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 gender identity and sexual orientation without any exemption for religious organizations like St. Joseph. This new understanding of the 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 tenets of the faith to the next generation. Not only that, but because St. Joseph’s welcomes the public to its facilities, it faces the risk of being held liable for discrimination because of its sincere religious beliefs about gender and marriage.
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 sex threatens St. Joseph’s right to create and maintain a parish and school environment that reflects its Catholic faith.