Haverhill Church, Pastor Drop Anti-Transgender Rights Lawsuit

Faith Christian Fellowship Pastor Marlene J. Yeo.

A Haverhill church and its pastor, as well as representatives of three other churches, are dropping a lawsuit against the Commonwealth after the state agreed to revise its guidelines for the recently enacted transgender equal access law.

A lawyer representing Faith Christian Fellowship of Haverhill, Pastor Marlene J. Yeo and three other churches withdrew the suit Monday at U.S. District Court, Boston, according to Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom.

“Commonwealth officials revised their official Gender Identity Guidance and website language, which now protects the freedom of churches to express views consistent with their faith and operate their facilities in a manner that doesn’t violate their core religious belief,” a statement reads. The group explained, the state’s Massachusetts Commission Again Discrimination originally noted “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 public.” The language has been “replaced with wording that says that the ‘law does not apply to a religious organization if subjecting the organization to the law would violate the organization’s First Amendment rights.’”

State officials argued the suit was pointless.

“This suit was never necessary, since Massachusetts law has long provided that, under certain circumstances, religious facilities are exempt from the public accommodations law. The transgender public accommodations bill did not change that,” said Deputy Press Secretary Emily Snyder. “Nonetheless, we took the opportunity to update language on our website, and we sent a letter to plaintiffs to make perfectly clear what the position of our office has always been: that religious facilities qualify as places of public accommodation when they host a public, secular function. Unfortunately, the ADF took this same opportunity to try and attack a new equal rights law under the guise of religious liberty. When it came time to appear before a judge, they chose to withdraw.”

Not everyone among the clergy shared Yeo’s concerns.

“I really don’t understand the fear around this issue,” Rev. Frank Clarkson of Haverhill’s Universalist-Unitarian Church told WHAV recently. “It sometimes gets assigned as people going into public restrooms to do anything but use the bathroom. Let people go into the bathroom where they feel most comfortable. It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

Of Yeo and her church, Clarkson added, “I appreciate the good work they do, but I just don’t see how aligning with the group from Arizona in the name of religious freedom serves anyone. “In our tradition, we really respect the work and dignity of every individual.” Clarkson said he personally supports the state’s transgender rights law.

As WHAV first reported in October, ADF, on behalf of 358 Washington St. church and others, filed suit against the state to block enforcement of the new transgender rights law. Attorney Christiana Holcomb told WHAV then being forced to comply with the law and related regulations would “violate deeply held convictions.”

“No church should fear government punishment simply for serving its community consistently with its faith. Massachusetts officials made the right decision to respect these churches’ freedom of religion and speech,” Holcomb said Monday. “We will continue to monitor the situation in Massachusetts to make sure those freedoms continue to be respected.” WHAV placed a call to  Holcomb for further comment, however she was not immediately available.

The churches named MCAD Commissioners Jamie R. Williamson, Sunila T. George and Charlotte G. Richie and Attorney General Maura Healey as defendants. However, according to Healey’s office, the lawsuit “had no legal leg to stand on” and a court hearing was scheduled for Friday.

Yeo and the other pastors are scheduled to join Holcomb and others during a news conference Wednesday, at 1 p.m., at Congregation Lion of Judah, 68 Northampton St., Boston.

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