Press Release

Catholic parish defends religious mission from state officials St. Joseph asks appeals court to protect church & school’s Catholic identity from Michigan politicians

Media Contact

Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

Additional Information

Student raising her hand in class

WASHINGTON – A Catholic parish in Michigan was in federal appeals court today to protect its ability to guide its church and school community without asking for permission from state officials. In St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel, the parish, with Becket’s help, challenged a state law that makes it illegal for St. Joseph to hire staff who agree to uphold its religious beliefs and bars it from maintaining a church and school environment that reflects its faith. After a lower court dismissed the case last year, St. Joseph asked the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow it to run its parish and school activities consistent with its Catholic beliefs. 

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 families in the area with a Catholic education rooted in the teachings of the Church. Like many religious schools, St. Joseph hires teachers and staff who support and advance the Catholic faith. St. Joseph also asks all staff—from kindergarten teachers to part-time bookkeepers—to be practicing Catholics and to uphold the faith. St. Joseph also follows Catholic teaching on issues like pronouns and separate girls’ and boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms.  

“Michiganders don’t need a permission slip from bureaucrats in Lansing to practice their religious beliefs,” said William Haun, senior counsel at Becket. “The court should reject this irresponsible law and let institutions like St. Joseph get back to freely serving in their schools, churches, and communities.” 

Michigan recently revised its civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity without any protection for religious organizations like St. Joseph. Michigan doesn’t deny that it could punish St. Joseph simply for following its faith. Instead, Michigan told St. Joseph it must ask permission from the state’s Civil Rights Commission whenever it wants to ask Catholic employees to follow Catholic teaching. Meanwhile, St. Joseph risks being sued in all its public activities—at the parish, the school, and its services to the community—simply for upholding Catholic teaching.   

“Michigan politicians are chilling St. Joseph and hundreds of other religious ministries out of staying true to their faith,” said Haun. “That is irresponsible—the First Amendment prohibits scaring religious institutions into abandoning their religious ways of life.”

A decision is expected later this year. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.