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Churches drop lawsuit against state’s transgender law

Four Massachusetts churches on Monday dropped a federal lawsuit contending that the state’s new transgender anti-discrimination law violates their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion.

In a statement, supporters of the churches said they withdrew the claim after it prompted state officials “to admit that the First Amendment protects a church’s freedom to operate consistently with its faith.”

But the Massachusetts attorney general’s office said the church’s lawsuit was never necessary to begin with, and that it had only clarified existing law.

Enacted in July, the law bans discrimination against transgender people in “places of public accommodations,” including restaurants and malls, and allows transgender people to use bathrooms or changing rooms based on their gender identity.

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The lawsuit, filed in October, argued that the law infringes on the right of churches “to express their religious beliefs and to use their building facilities in a manner consistent with those beliefs.” Even “activities the churches undertake that do not contain overt religious inculcation are religious in nature because they are motivated by the churches’ religious mission,” the suit stated.

Last month, Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona group that represented the four churches, received a letter from the attorney general’s office that stated they had clarified a description of the law on its website, removing the phrase “house of worship” as an example of a place of public accommodation.

If a religious facility hosts a “public, secular function,” it can still qualify as a place of public accommodation, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office noted.

Alliance Defending Freedom scheduled a news conference Wednesday to discuss the suit.

Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Healey’s office, said that the transgender law never threatened the exemptions religious facilities receive from public accommodation laws, making the lawsuit unnecessary. The website was changed to clarify the law, she said.

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Last week, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination made a similar clarification in its Gender Identity Guidance. The commission’s latest guideline stated 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.”

Gary Buseck, legal director for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, or GLAD, said the wording change was trivial.

“Their new language substantively doesn’t mean any change, but if it’s clearer to people ... it’s a good thing,” he said.

Buseck said GLAD will work to ensure religious facilities follow the law while hosting nonsecular events.

“I don’t think there is a huge amount of controversy ... We’re not in the business of targeting religion for engaging in religious activity.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.