Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish v. Nessel
Description: The Michigan Supreme Court reinterpreted the prohibition on sex discrimination in Michigan’s Civil Rights Act and penal code to include sexual orientation and gender identity. That change requires Grand Rapids-based Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and its school, Sacred Heart Academy, to hire faculty and staff who lead lives in direct opposition to the Catholic faith, speak messages that violate Church doctrine, and refrain from articulating Catholic beliefs in teaching its students and when advertising the school to prospective students or job applicants. Additionally, by preventing Sacred Heart from operating its school consistent with its beliefs, state officials are violating the rights of parents who specifically chose to send their children to Sacred Heart Academy because the school aligns with their values and religious beliefs.
Broad support filed at 6th Circuit for MI Catholic school
CINCINNATI – Several groups from diverse religious and philosophical backgrounds have united in support of a Grand Rapids-based parish, its Catholic school, and several of the school’s families in friend-of-the-court briefs filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish v. Nessel. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and its school, Sacred Heart Academy, are asking the 6th Circuit to protect the school’s constitutionally protected freedom to operate as a religious school.
The Michigan Legislature recently amended the Michigan Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation and gender identity but provided no protection for religious organizations that believe marriage between one man and one woman and the immutability of sex support human flourishing. The missing protections mean that the change to the law requires Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and its school, Sacred Heart Academy, to hire faculty and staff who lead lives in direct opposition to the Catholic faith, speak messages that violate Church doctrine, and decline to articulate Catholic beliefs in teaching students and when advertising the school to prospective students or job applicants. The amendment also threatens the rights of parents—including the three families who have joined the lawsuit—who specifically chose to send their children to Sacred Heart Academy because the school aligns with their values and religious beliefs.
“As a federal court concluded in another case involving a Catholic social-service organization, this sort of illegitimate targeting creates a ‘strong inference’ that the state’s ‘real target is the religious beliefs’ of the Catholic Church ‘and not discriminatory conduct,’” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “Here, Michigan is forcing Sacred Heart to make an unconstitutional and unconscionable choice between teaching and practicing the Catholic faith or closing their doors forever, while denying parents the right to direct the upbringing and education of their children. Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish has faithfully served Grand Rapids families for more than a century, and its school provides a rich academic and spiritual environment for hundreds of children. We and the groups that have filed briefs in support of our clients are urging the 6th Circuit to allow their lawsuit to continue so they can take steps toward serving their community without fear of government punishment.”
Polish immigrants founded Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish more than a century ago. The parish-run academy exists to support parents by providing their children with a classical, Catholic education and serves nearly 400 children from pre-K through 12th grade. The parents who joined the lawsuit all have children attending Sacred Heart Academy.
“The end result of laws like those in Michigan is clear—religious organizations will be forced to choose between their religious mission and continuing to operate. We will all suffer the consequences when we shut down religious organizations and lose their unique contributions and service to our communities,” a brief filed by Classical Christian Schools explains.
A brief from the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team points out that, “the coreligionist exemption is a critical precedent that allows religious groups to continue their existence and their purpose by guaranteeing their right to associate, through employment, with those who share the faith of the religious group and exemplify that faith by the way they live. It thus preserves not only the free exercise of religion but also the freedom of association.”
Sacred Heart also received friend-of-the-court support in a brief from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Samaritan’s Purse, Concerned Women for America, The Family Foundation, Illinois Family Institute, International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, Pacific Justice Institute, and the National Legal Foundation.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.
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John Bursch is senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy with Alliance Defending Freedom. Bursch has argued 12 U.S. Supreme Court cases and more than 30 state supreme court cases since 2011, and a recent study concluded that among all frequent Supreme Court advocates who did not work for the federal government, he had the 3rd highest success rate for persuading justices to adopt his legal position. Bursch served as solicitor general for the state of Michigan from 2011-2013. He has argued multiple Michigan Supreme Court cases in eight of the last ten terms and has successfully litigated hundreds of matters nationwide, including six with at least $1 billion at stake. As part of his private firm, Bursch Law PLLC, he has represented Fortune 500 companies, foreign and domestic governments, top public officials, and industry associations in high-profile cases, primarily on appeal. He received his J.D. magna cum laude in 1997 from the University of Minnesota Law School and is admitted to practice in numerous federal district and appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.