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Catholic parish fights to protect its religious mission from Michigan politicians St. Joseph asks federal appeals court to protect church and school’s Catholic identity

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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WASHINGTON – A Catholic parish in Michigan asked a federal appeals court yesterday to protect its ability to guide its church and school community, without first asking for permission from state officials. In St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel, the parish challenged a newly revised 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 lawsuit earlier this year, St. Joseph is asking the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to let St. Joseph run its parish and school activities consistent with its Catholic beliefs about human sexuality and marriage.  

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. Like many Catholic churches around the country, St. Joseph 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 for staff and children and separate girls’ and boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms. 

“For over a century, St. Joseph has existed to serve its local community and help its parish and school grow deeper in the faith, said William Haun, senior counsel at Becket. “St. Joseph must have the freedom to foster an environment that is faithful to its Catholic identity to continue that mission.” 

Michigan recently revised its civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity, without any protection for religious organizations like St. Joseph. According to Michigan’s Attorney General, religious Michiganders seeking protection on these issues are “not religious heroes, they are bigots.” Michigan doesn’t deny that it could penalize St. Joseph simply for exercising its religion. Instead, Michigan told St. Joseph to ask permission from the Civil Rights Commission every time St. Joseph wants to ask Catholic employees to uphold Catholic teaching. Meanwhile, St. Joseph faces the risk of being sued in all its open activities—at the parish, the school, and its local Knights of Columbus Hall—simply for upholding Catholic teaching.  

“Constitutional rights don’t come with permission slips. Michigan cannot tell St. Joseph and every other religious organization in the state that they are breaking the law by staying true to their religious beliefs,” said Haun. “We are asking the court to step in and ensure that religious groups across the state can live out their faith and not be sued simply because they open their doors to everyone.” 

Oral argument is expected in spring 2024.