The Cost of Conscience: Sacred Heart Academy Forced to Take on the State of Michigan


Scott Blakeman

What would you do if the government gave your ministry this ultimatum: Compromise on your religious beliefs or face punishment?

Unfortunately, this isn't hypothetical for Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and its school, Sacred Heart Academy.  

Sacred Heart has served the spiritual needs of the Grand Rapids community for more than a century. In all its years of ministry, it has never had a problem operating consistent with both the teachings of the Catholic Church and the laws of the State of Michigan.  

That is, until last year.  

In July 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court reinterpreted the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and penal code to include sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination within the definition of the word “sex.” The law expansively applies to churches, religious schools, and nonprofits such that now even though these entities treat all people with respect and dignity, they can face punishment for simply teaching or operating in accordance with their religious beliefs on sexuality and identity. This new interpretation of the law places Sacred Heart in the crosshairs.

The Soul of Sacred Heart

Ultimately, the Sacred Heart curriculum's purpose is to pursue truth. It values this pursuit so much that it makes sacrifices to protect its mission and autonomy. Unlike other schools, Sacred Heart chooses not to take state or federal funding. The school does this to ensure it can preserve its distinctly Catholic identity and intentional community.

Sacred Heart believes that to correctly teach truth to its students, its curriculum must necessarily be founded on a proper understanding of human anthropology. So, its curriculum unapologetically emphasizes the Catholic understanding of the nature of men and women.  

Sacred Heart's Faith in Action

Sacred Heart believes that one of its primary objectives is to pass on the Catholic faith to students. To aid this endeavor, it requires all faculty and staff to be professing Christians who support the Catholic Church's moral and doctrinal teachings, including its teachings on marriage and sexuality. Sacred Heart requires its employees to support, live, and model the Catholic faith in its doctrine and morals, and to become certified to teach the Catholic faith. Every year employees sign a "memorandum of understanding" outlining their religious and moral duties, and they publicly swear an "oath of fidelity" to Church teaching.

An Impossible Choice

To comply with Michigan's newfound interpretation of its civil rights act, Sacred Heart would be forced to hire faculty and staff who lead lives that directly contradict the Catholic faith, speak messages that violate Church doctrine, and refrain from articulating Catholic beliefs in teaching its students and when advertising the school to prospective students or job applicants. All of this violates Sacred Heart's free speech and free exercise rights. And Sacred Heart will not defy Catholic doctrine in these ways; it would rather shut down than defy its fundamental beliefs.

What is at Stake in the Sacred Heart Case?

Church Autonomy

The First Amendment's religion clauses protect churches' autonomy by restricting the state's power to regulate matters of faith, doctrine, and church government. This is known as the Church Autonomy Doctrine. The First Amendment's Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses should protect Sacred Heart's right to:  

  • Form an intentional Catholic community
  • Select its leaders and ministers
  • Decide for itself matters of faith and doctrine
  • Manage its internal affairs related to employment and the services it provides
  • Determine how to communicate its religious beliefs effectively
  • Operate as a Catholic ministry
  • Associate with and employ employees and staff in accordance with Catholic teaching
  • Be free from participating in activities and procedures that violate its religious beliefs  

Michigan's actions clearly burden Sacred Heart's religious autonomy rights by forcing it to govern its school in a manner inconsistent with the Catholic faith and its doctrine.  

Free Exercise Rights

Michigan's maneuvers also violate Sacred Heart's free exercise rights specifically by penalizing it for favoring Catholic job and student applicants over those who do not share or support the community's faith. Forcing Sacred Heart to employ those who do not or cannot support, model, and communicate the Catholic faith and its doctrine is wrong, and the government has no business inserting itself in this area.

Coreligionist Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception

The coreligionist dotrine and the ministerial exception are important, established legal principles that respect the rights of churches and other ministries to carry out their missions without undue government interference. As applied to Sacred Heart's case, Michigan's employment and public accommodations provisions violate the coreligionist doctrine and the ministerial exception because they prohibit Sacred Heart from employing or retaining only those individuals who support, model, and can communicate the Catholic faith and its doctrine to students.  

The state’s so-called “solution” is to require Sacred Heart to ask state officials for permission to hire or retain all current and future employees in accordance with Sacred Heart’s religious mission. The application process is lengthy and burdensome. And permission is granted or denied at the whim of whichever government official reviews each application. The state has no authority to regulate Sacred Heart's hiring, discipline, and retention of ministers and coreligionists. Sacred Heart has a constitutional right to employ only coreligionists—individuals who all share the same understanding of and commitment to the Catholic faith. The state’s “solution” violates that right. It also violates the First Amendment.

Freedom of Speech and Assembly

The First Amendment's Free Speech and Assembly Clauses protect Sacred Heart's ability to speak, create, publish, and distribute speech about its beliefs to its students, parishioners, and the public. Michigan's government can't squelch that. Furthermore, the state can't stop Sacred Heart from freely associating with individuals and other groups who share its views and beliefs. And lastly, Michigan's government can't interfere with Sacred Heart's ability to peaceably assemble or engage in otherwise lawful religious worship, exercise, and speech activities with people of its choosing.

Parental Rights and Responsibilities

Most, if not all, parents who send their children to Sacred Heart do so because they not only value the high caliber of education Sacred Heart is known for but because they want a distinctly Catholic education for their kids – and they have the right to do that. Some Sacred Heart families have even moved from other states so that their children can attend this school.

But because this interpretation of Michigan's law forbids Sacred Heart from operating consistent with its Catholic beliefs, parents are deprived of their fundamental right to determine and direct their children's education. And, if Sacred Heart can't freely inculcate its Catholic faith in its students, it ceases to carry out its mission and loses a main draw for parents desiring a Catholic education for their kids.  

Every parent has the right to make the best education decision for their kids, and the government can't deprive parents of that fundamental freedom.  

Sacred Heart Should be Free to Operate Without Government Coercion

No government official has the right to force a religious institution like Sacred Heart to affirm beliefs contrary to its religious teachings on matters like marriage and sexuality. There is a strong precedent for this view, and our federal courts should respect that.  

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