A Massachusetts government commission's claim that churches may be subject to the state's transgender restroom bill has drawn expressions of concern from local evangelicals.
"The United States Constitution has been understood since the founding of our nation as specifically protecting the rights of churches to function in keeping with their deeply held religious beliefs," Terry Dorsett, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, told Baptist Press in written comments. "Any attempt by a small vocal activist group to strip churches of that right should be vehemently opposed by all people. If they can take a church's right to practice their faith away, imagine what else they can do."
At issue is a document released by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) Sept. 1 explaining how a ban on gender identity discrimination in public accommodations adopted in July will be enforced when it takes effect Oct. 1.
The document warns, "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. All persons, regardless of gender identity, shall have the right to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation."
That includes restroom and locker room usage based on perceived gender identity rather than biological sex, the document explains. Violation of the gender-identity nondiscrimination law is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI), told BP the MCAD document "demonstrates the religious tone deafness of the people drafting these regulations and guidelines."
"Any person of faith knows that we want all of our church functions to be open and welcoming to the general public to bring them in to hear the Good News, the Gospel, to be ministered to," Beckwith said. "To say that churches have to sacrifice their religious liberty when they hold an event that's open to the public means the church has to sacrifice all of its religious freedom anytime it operates."
The MFI, an associate organization of Focus on the Family, is seeking clarification of the seemingly "nonsensical" guideline, Beckwith said.
Regarding religious liberty, a footnote is included in the MDAD document stating, "All charges, including those involving religious institutions or religious exemptions, are reviewed on a case-by-case basis." Beckwith said, however, there is "no provision in the law exempting religious organizations."
A petition drive is aiming to put the public accommodations bill up for a repeal vote in November. Some 33,000 certified signatures are required by Sept. 22 under state law, according to KeepMASafe.com, a campaign website that cites safety and privacy concerns with the legislation.
Neal Davidson, pastor of Hope Chapel in Sterling, Mass., told BP that "beyond the legislative dimension, the challenge for the individual local church is how they create a grace-based environment for every person who walks through the door."
"Certainly, we want to serve all people, even those who are struggling with deep, core, life-shaping issues like gender identity, with the grace and respect they deserve since they are made in the image of God and precious to Him," Davidson, immediate past Baptist Convention of New England president, said in written comments. "Obviously they are hurting. But we also want to create an environment where everyone feels safe and comfortable.
"When we actually face this issue, in many respects it won't be easy because these two commitments will often be at odds. I think the principles to be followed are to deal with each case individually and relationally and to always be seeking the wisdom of God in reflecting His grace and truth in the real world. I also have great confidence in the followers of Christ who comprise the church to be able to deal with this in love," Davidson said.
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP (bpnews.net) reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.