When Churches Do Business

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has filed an amicus brief in a case, brought by a gay couple against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester, over its backing out of a real estate transaction because of their sexual orientation.

Via the Boston Globe:

Coakley’s office weighed in on a case pending in Worcester Superior Court in which a married gay couple, James Fairbanks and Alain Beret, contend that the diocese refused to sell them a historic mansion in Northbridge, which had been used for years by a church-affiliated nonprofit retreat center, because the couple might host same-sex weddings there.

Fairbanks and Beret, who wanted to operate the property as an inn that would hold weddings and other big events, contend the diocese accepted their initial offer in spring 2012, but eventually cut off negotiations.

The diocese’s real estate agent accidentally forwarded the couple an e-mail in which a diocesan official said the church was no longer interested in a deal “because of the potentiality of gay marriages there.”

The couple sued under the state’s anti-discrimination law, and Coakley weighed in on this point (emphasis mine): 

Our laws provide important protections for religious organizations and people of faith,” Coakley said in a statement. “These laws also strike a balance between religious freedoms and the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination. In this case, we believe that this family was unfairly discriminated against by the diocese when it refused to sell them property based on their sexual orientation.”

In her brief, Coakley said that religious organizations do not have to comply with antidiscrimination laws in matters related to their internal workings, but that there is no exemption for third-party real estate transactions.

“The diocesan defendants need not perform, endorse, host, or remain silent concerning what their faith teaches them about the morality of same-sex marriage or homosexuality,” she wrote. “And no reasonable person would think that a wedding that took place on a property no longer owned by a church was endorsed by that church.”

Notwithstanding the accidentally forwarded email, the diocese contends in the lawsuit that the deal collapsed over financing, not the couples’ sexual orientation or intentions for the property’s use. Of course we don’t know the complete set of facts presented and how the case will ultimately turn out. But the case highlights the same issues under debate in the religious freedom bills we’ve seen come up in the states this year, most of which have failed. (The last one standing, in Mississippi, is still alive, but barely.) That is: houses of worship are exempt from anti-discrimination laws, for obvious reasons like you can’t make a synagogue hire an Episcopalian minister. But businesses are not exempt.

Here, the question is whether churches, when they’re doing not-churchy things like selling real estate, are acting like a church or a business. Moreover, merely selling property to a buyer who might use it for same-sex weddings seems far too attentuated to appear to be an endorsement or participation in said weddings. You could say it’s more attenuated than the photographer or baker refusal cases. Yet it’s not hard to imagine that this case, too, will become part of the religious freedom lexicon (what if churches are forced to sell real estate to become same-sex wedding venues?). Which is why, I suspect, the proponents of these religious freedom bills will not give up after the failures in the current legislative sessions.