Catholic school free from legal threats, Ohio city says after lawsuit

.- A private Catholic school in Ohio has dropped its federal lawsuit after the city of South Euclid clarified that the school was not affected by a new ordinance on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression that the school feared would leave it vulnerable to legal action.

“No one should have to file a federal lawsuit simply to find out whether they are violating a vague law with criminal penalties,” Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said May 28.

“We’re disappointed that the city didn’t do the right thing right from the start, but we’re pleased that it now acknowledges that The Lyceum’s parents, students, and faculty have the freedom to seek out this unique, faith-based education and maintain community standards rooted in Catholic teaching.”

The Lyceum, which opened in 2003, is a Catholic school independent of the Diocese of Cleveland. It is now based in a building owned by the diocese’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, the news site Cleveland.com reports. The school had 53 students as of April, ranging from sixth grade through high school.

Its leaders had filed suit in early April, seeking a federal injunction against the city’s new anti-discrimination ordinance. They feared the law’s provisions protecting sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression in employment, housing and public accommodations would affect the school’s ability to follow Catholic teaching on marriage as a union of one man and one woman, on premarital sex, and on gender.

The ordinance, passed unanimously in April 2018, also protects ethnic groups, recipients of public assistance, former military personnel, and those who may be judged on public appearance. It passed despite concerns from critics that it would violate religious freedoms. These critics included The Lyceum’s headmaster Luke Macik.

Each violation of the law could result in a fine up to $500, restitution, or up to 60 days in jail, if a civil rights review board sides with the complainant.

The Lyceum questioned whether it would be permitted under the law to hire employees who adhere to Catholic beliefs and to publish an employment statement about adherence to Catholic teaching.

While the law protected religious entities hiring for ministerial positions, it did not explicitly protect hiring teachers at religious schools.

Initial drafts of the ordinance explicitly provided legal protections so that religious organizations could act consistently with their mission and teachings, Alliance Defending Freedom said. However, the city council removed these provisions from the final law.

Alliance Defending Freedom charged that the city illegally refused to answer the school’s public records request.

“And when the school directly asked the city whether its ordinance applies to The Lyceum, the city refused to say and suggested the school hire legal counsel and figure it out,” the legal group said May 28. The school’s leadership decided to file a federal lawsuit because they feared that operating the school according to Catholic standards in employment, admission and other ways would violate the law.

The school dropped its lawsuit following the clarification from the city.

“Religious schools like The Lyceum have the freedom to operate consistently with their faith without fear of unjust government punishment—and we’re glad South Euclid now affirms this reality,” said Holcomb.

Keith Ari Benjamin, director of South Euclid Community Services director, helped draft the law. He criticized the legal group representing the school.

He charged that Alliance Defending Freedom “has spent the last month working to divide our community and spread falsehoods and hate.”

The dropping of the lawsuit is “a victory for our community, our residents, the LGBT community and all those working to stop the spread of hate and all discrimination across our nation,” he said, claiming that the dropping of the lawsuit shows that the ordinance is legal and “that their own allegations don’t make out a claim,” according to Cleveland.com.

Holcomb, the attorney, said the case was about constitutional protections.

“We’re hopeful that other cities avoid such an unforced error and remain mindful that the First Amendment protects religious schools from government hostility, targeting, and discrimination,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio represented the city. It opposed an injunction against the law on the grounds that the private school is not considered a place of public accommodation. According to the ACLU affiliate, the school’s hiring practices were exempt.

Gwen Stembridge, Northeast Ohio coordinator for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Ohio, an ordinance supporter, said in April 2018 that Christian entities are still protected in all hiring matters and language regarding moral conduct codes can be legally part of an employee contract before he or she is hired.

The national ACLU and several state affiliates are campaigning against religious freedom protections in several areas such as abortion rights and legal compliance with LGBT demands.

These protections benefit many Catholic organizations at present, but in some states organizations like Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close because of requirements that they place children with same-sex couples. In California, the ACLU is suing a network of five Catholic hospitals after one hospital refused to perform a hysterectomy on a self-identified transgender man.

The proposed federal Equality Act would recognize sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories of civil rights and strip religious freedom protections from anti-discrimination lawsuits. On May 17 the legislation passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives for the first time by a vote of 236-173, split largely along party lines. The bill now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.

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