A draft form of gender identity regulations released by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination says churches that hold “secular” events “open to the public” must conform to gender identity pronouns and not challenge gender identity with respect to housing, employment and restrooms.
Released earlier this month and set for implementation on October 1, the updated version of the state’s “Gender Identity Guidance” declares that “places of public accommodation may not discriminate against, or restrict a person from services because of that person’s gender identity.”
A footnote declares “all charges” of discrimination “are reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” though the regulation language says, “Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public.”
Additionally, the “Guidance” states, “Moreover, it is a violation of the law for any individual to aid or incite another in making a distinction, discriminating against or restricting an individual from a place of public accommodation on the basis of gender identity.”
Legislators passed the law mandating the changes on July 7, according to the LGBT group MassEquality, and it was signed by the state’s Republican Governor the next day.
MassEquality Executive Director Deborah Shields, JD, MPH, said in a statement that “the guidelines are clear, fair, and protect the safety of all people in Massachusetts. Finally, transgender people have safe and secure access to all public accommodations in the state.”
A footnote explains, “Violation of the law shall be punished by a fine of not more than twenty-five hundred dollars or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both…. In addition, the violator shall be liable to the aggrieved person for damages.”
Groups that qualify as being under the purview of the “Guidance” must take people at their word about gender identity, according to the state. “The statutory definition of gender identity does not require the individual to have gender affirming surgery or intend to undergo surgery, nor does it require evidence of past medical care or treatment.”
But the line between a religious event and a “secular” isn’t always clear cut. “Churches hold events ‘open to the general public’ all the time — it’s often how they seek new converts,” wrote Eugene Volokh at The Washington Post. “And even church ‘secular events,’ which I take it means events that don’t involve overt worship, are generally viewed by the church as part of its ministry, and certainly as a means of the church modeling what it believes to be religiously sound behavior.”
Indeed, a church might be liable even for statements by its congregants (and not just its volunteers, who are acting as agents) that are critical of transgender people. Tolerating such remarks is generally seen as allowing a “hostile environment,” and therefore “harassment.” Indeed, the statement I linked to specifically encourages people to “prohibit derogatory comments or jokes about transgender persons from employees, clients, vendors and any others, and promptly investigate and discipline persons who engage in discriminatory conduct” (emphasis added). But that’s not just encouragement; it simply reflects hostile work environment harassment law, which has long required employers to restrict derogatory speech by clients, to prevent “hostile environments.” See 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11. The same logic applies for places of public accommodation, which Massachusetts says can include churches.
PJ Media’s Tyler O’Neil commented, “Ideally, the First Amendment should uphold the religious freedom of churches, Christian schools, and other faith-based organizations even in Massachusetts,” and noted that the Supreme Court probably would get “the last word on this restrictive legislation.”
But for now? “Christian ministries need to get ready for the onslaught of lawsuits leveled against them, and it might also be acceptable for them to leave, if they believe they can effectively do their ministry elsewhere,” O’Neill said. “It could be argued, however, that Massachusetts needs them now, more than ever.” (For more from the author of “This New Reg Will Punish Churches That Use ‘Discriminatory’ Gender Practices” please click HERE)