If a church hosts a spaghetti supper and invites the public to attend, does that church give up its religious freedom?
Let's say, for example, the church believes people should use a restroom corresponding to their God-assigned gender at birth. If that church invites non-members to eat pasta in its building, must the church allow transgender individuals to use whichever restroom they prefer?
Such questions are not just theoretical. They are at the heart of a lawsuit filed Tuesday by a handful of Massachusetts churches.
Readers must wade through a bunch of political talk, but the Boston Globe hits the high points in its coverage:
Four Massachusetts churches contend in a federal lawsuit that a new state law could force them to allow transgender people to use the church bathrooms, changing rooms, and shower facilities of their choice, violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to freely practice their religion.
The litigation opens a new front in a broader effort to undermine the law, which bars discrimination against transgender people in restaurants, malls, and other public accommodations.
Also Tuesday, the secretary of state confirmed that opponents had gathered enough signatures to place a repeal of the law on the ballot in 2018.
“This is bigger than bathrooms,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute and a central player in the lawsuit and the repeal effort. “This law is eliminating rights that have existed for as long as this country has been in existence — fundamental rights to privacy, to modesty and safety, now constitutional rights to religious freedom.”
So where does the spaghetti supper question fit in?
More from the Globe:
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination recently issued guidance on how to comply with the law and found that “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.”
Beyond all the political talk, the most insightful quote in the story comes from a Harvard Law School professor:
Joseph Singer, a professor at Harvard Law School, said the suit presents “a really interesting, hard issue.” Churches that hold spaghetti dinners may be thinking about converting members of the public, “but if they really are inviting anyone in the public to come in, without any religious test, then it looks like it’s not really a religious thing.
“The courts then have to figure out,” he continued, “how do they draw a line between what seems more secular-oriented, open to the public ... versus having something that’s more central to their religious mission.”
The lawsuit petition itself runs 38 pages, so I understand the reporter's difficulty in highlighting — in a relatively small amount of space — the full scope of the plaintiffs' arguments. The Globe does include a bit of information from the churches on why they believe any activities inside their buildings are religious in nature.
But the lawsuit goes into much more detail, including these points:
10. The Churches engage in religious expression and practice in every activity they open to the public: during communal worship, other formal religious services, Sunday school classes, Bible studies, youth-oriented activities, offering help from their food pantries, the meals they serve to the homeless at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and during other outreach opportunities, including spaghetti suppers.
11. The Churches welcome the public to all of their activities because they believe that to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ they must invite members of their communities to hear the good news of God’s compassion and forgiveness offered freely to everyone, they should teach those beliefs to the world, and they should be a blessing to all who pass through their doors, just as Jesus Christ, the founder of their faith, extended forgiveness, fed the hungry, and showed compassion to all who came to Him for aid.
12. Even activities the Churches undertake that do not contain overt religious inculcation are religious in nature because they are motivated by the Churches’ religious mission and engender other important elements of religious meaning, expression, and purpose, such as mutual encouragement, relationship-building, demonstrating the Churches’ interest in the welfare of others, and nurturing spiritual gifts to be used for the benefit of church members and the community.
As we've pointed out in previous posts, religious freedom is a major concern for many conservative Christians heading into the Nov. 8 general election.
I'd love to see additional news coverage that focuses less on the politics and more on the religious liberty and civil rights questions associated with a church spaghetti supper.