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Leaders and attorneys involved in high profile federal lawsuits involving LGBT equality in Michigan had differing ideas of how Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v the Colorado Civil Rights Commission could impact that litigation.
The case was supposed to test the boundaries of religious liberties, but the court issued what some legal experts called a “very narrow” ruling. Baker Jack Phillips’ lawyer argued his client’s constitutional right to refuse to create a wedding cake for a samesex nuptial based on his sincerely held religious beliefs. But the court avoided that larger question, instead overturning a decision by the CCRC against Phillips because the court, by a 7-2 vote, found commissioners demonstrated a bias and hostility toward Phillips’ sincerely held religious beliefs.
The ruling could impact three federal lawsuits in Michigan involving LGBTQ equality issues and religious freedom questions.
— The ACLU of Michigan is suing the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services over its practice of allowing religious organizations to place foster kids based on the organizations’ religious beliefs. That case is pending in the U.S. Eastern District Court in Detroit.
— A Charlotte farmer is suing the city of East Lansing for banning his business, Country Mill Orchard & Cider Mill, last year from the city’s farmers market for refusing to permit same-sex weddings. The farmer, Steve Tennes, claims the city booted him because of his sincerely held religious beliefs.
— Parents and students of Williamston Community Schools are suing the district over its adoption of a transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination policy. The parents argue their children’s privacy rights will be violated. Those two cases are pending in The U.S.
Western District Court in Grand Rapids.
In the Country Mill case, the business was able to return to the farmers market when it reopened for the season on Sunday because of a temporary injunction against the city.
Kate Anderson, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Country Mill, said the ruling would impact the litigation.
“Central to that decision by the court in that case was the same concern over hostility towards religious beliefs,” said Anderson about the preliminary injunction issued by Federal District Judge Paul Maloney. “Like the commission in Colorado, East Lansing was very clear it did not want Country Mill at the market because of Steve’s religious beliefs. That is the kind of hostility towards religion that should not be tolerated in our society.”
East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows denied that was the case, or that this decision will ultimately have an effect.
“They signed a contract that said they would follow the ordinance,” said Meadows, referring to the city’s non-discrimination law. “It’s that simple.”
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT project, said his organization agree with the city’s decision to keep out Country Mill, but he believes the decision made by the Supreme Court will have no impact on that lawsuit.
Over in Williamston, the Supreme Court ruling is unlikely to have any impact on the ongoing litigation, said David Kallman of the Great Lakes Justice Project. He is representing the parents and students suing Williamston.
“That’s actually just a small part of it,” Kallman said of the religious liberty issues in his case. “It is not the same, no one is being forced or compelled to do anything in the Williamston case.”
Greg Talberg, president of the Williamston Community Schools, declined to discuss the implications of the Supreme Court ruling.
Kaplan said his organization is seeking to intervene on behalf of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance student group and Stand with Trans, a citizen activist group in the community. He agreed with Kallman that the Masterpiece decision was unlikely to have any bearing on the Williamston case.
The last case involves the state of Michigan allowing contract agencies to screen prospective foster and adoptive families based on religious criteria.
Kaplan said he doesn’t see the court’s ruling having an impact on the federal lawsuit against MDHHS. In that case, he said, his organization brought suit because the state was using taxpayer dollars to support a biased policy.
“We’re not doubting the sincerely held religious beliefs of these foster and adoption agencies,” he said. “What we’re saying is that when you are an agent of the state you have to treat everyone fairly.”
Despite his view that the case does not set any precedent, Kaplan said legislators and local elected officials may try to use it to gut protections for LGBT people.
“Will there be legislators who will introduce legislation to try to create a broader license, to say we can discriminate? They will certainly try,” he said.
Kaplan said at the end of the day, the decision didn’t change much.
“They did not say it is legal to discriminate against LGBT people. They did not say you can use your sincerely held religious beliefs to discriminate. They didn’t change any civil rights laws,” Kaplan said. “The baker, I guess, won the battle but he lost the war.”