BOSTON — A new Massachusetts law that prohibits discrimination against transgender people in public restrooms is "punishing" the protected religious speech of churches and pastors, a conservative Christian organization claims in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Alliance Defending Freedom, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., said it sued on behalf of four Massachusetts churches to protect their right to operate their facilities "in a manner that doesn't violate their core religious beliefs." The lawsuit names Democratic state Attorney General Maura Healey and members of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination as defendants.
The law that went into effect in July bars discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations. Among other things, it allows individuals to use the bathroom or locker room that corresponds with their gender identity.
Healey has found that churches are places of public accommodation.
Massachusetts voters in 2018 will be asked whether the state should keep or repeal the new state law aimed at preventing discrimination against transgender individuals in public accommodations, as activists submitted enough signatures to secure a place on the ballot, the secretary of state's office said Tuesday.
The ballot question committee Keep MA Safe filed 34,231 certified signatures with Secretary of State William Galvin's office, more than the 32,375 needed to ensure ballot access in 2018, according to Galvin's office.
The committee has said hundreds of volunteers, resisting "radical transgender policies," had collected more than 50,000 total signatures over the past two months in order to get the question on the ballot.
The ADF contends in the lawsuit that churches would be forced to open changing rooms, shower facilities and restrooms based on perceived gender identity and not on biological sex. The groups says because the law also prohibits covered entities from making statements intended to discriminate or to incite others to do so, Healey and the commission "also intend to force churches and pastors to refrain from religious expression regarding sexuality that conflicts with the government's views."
"Neither the commission nor the attorney general has the constitutional authority to dictate how any church uses its facility or what public statements a church can make concerning a deeply held religious belief, such as human sexuality," said attorney Steve O'Ban, senior counsel for ADF.
A spokeswoman for Healey's office did not immediately provide comment. An assistant to the commission did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The lawsuit asks the court to suspend enforcement of the law against the churches while their lawsuit proceeds. The churches suing are Horizon Christian Fellowship, in Fitchburg: Abundant Life Church, in Swansea; House of Destiny Ministries, in Southbridge; and Faith Christian Fellowship in Haverhill.