Critics of a transgender rights bill signed into law by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this summer have launched full-swing into a repeal campaign to try to overturn the non-discrimination measure.
Senate Bill 2407, which bans transgender discrimination in public accommodations and allows for people to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, takes effect on Oct. 1, WBUR radio reported.
The measure has drawn praise and scrutiny from the public and politicians alike. As for Baker, who supports the measure, he said "no one should be discriminated against in Massachusetts because of their gender identity."
But others, including the Massachusetts Family Institute, an organization that upholds Judeo-Christian values, were quick to speak out after Baker signed the bill into law on July 8.
The group issued a statement expressing disappointment and saying that the law will "violate the fundamental rights to privacy and safety for all citizens of the commonwealth, particularly women and children."
But there's another issue at play: concern over how the regulation will impact churches in the state.
After all, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the state's primary civil rights agency, released a document on Sept. 1, titled, "Gender Identity Guidance." The document defined a public accommodation as "any place, whether licensed or unlicensed, which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public."
The text goes on to say that this encompasses both public and private establishments, including malls, public agencies, beaches, parks, restaurants and public roads. It then proclaims that churches also fall under the public accommodations law if and when they host events that are open to the public.
"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," the guidance reads. "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."
Reaction to Baker's signing of the law was swift even before the guidance was issued, though the church language has upped the ante on the debate.
Before Senate Bill 2407 became law, critics were already reaching out to the governor's office in hopes that he would veto the legislation, but after Baker rejected those requests, the push-back intensified.
About a week after the bill was signed, those opponents — led by the Massachusetts Family Institute — organized and launched a referendum initiative to try to repeal the law in 2018, according to State House News Service.
Petitioners with the "Keep MA Safe" effort were unable to file for 2016, as the deadline had passed; they must collect 32,375 signatures by Sept. 22 in order to get the transgender anti-discrimination law on the ballot for 2018.
"You have a 90-day window to collect these signatures once the bill is passed into law," Family Institute president Andrew Beckwith told The Christian Post. "Because of when it is passed and when the 90-day window closes and when the 2016 elections are, per law it has to be on the 2018 ballot."
Beckwith said that his organization plans to spend the next two years educating the public about the law to rally opposition, explaining that he is "especially concerned with the language relating to churches, because that adds an additional dimension of violating the First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, free speech and freedom of association."
But Beckwith isn't the only critic who's concerned, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh penned an op-ed pushing back against the "church" language by noting that church events that are "open to the general public" are often still viewed as ministry events by church leaders, even if they aren't overt worship services.
"My guess is that most churches would not turn someone away from a generally open spaghetti supper," the law professor wrote, but added that he believes churches should be free to do so.
The guidance also says that employers and public accommodations should use "names, pronouns, and gender-related terms appropriate to employee’s stated gender identity."
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination told The Christian Post on Wednesday that the agency supports free speech and expression and that churches are "by and large … exempt from being held to the (state's) anti-discrimination laws."
That said, any event that is hosted in a church and is for "purely secular purposes" could fall under public accommodations regulations.
The Massachusetts battle mirrors an earlier fight this summer over a brochure that was produced by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. After furor over the agency's language — which stated that churches could sometimes be included in public accommodations laws — the state tempered its language.