Minnesota Reformer: Republicans accuse DFL of ‘unprecedented attack’ on religious groups

Catholics, Lutherans, Jews and Muslims want lawmakers to restore an exemption protecting them from gender identity claims

A group of Catholics, Lutherans, Jews and Muslims are trying to persuade state lawmakers to restore an exemption in the Minnesota Human Rights Act protecting religious organizations and schools against claims of gender identity-based discrimination.

The religious groups and schools want to be able to hire people who adhere to their beliefs, e.g., they want to forgo hiring trans people without the threat of civil rights litigation. The majority Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party at the Capitol has largely ignored their pleas. 

Last year, lawmakers modernized definitions in the Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But no corresponding religious exemption was added for gender identity, so current law allows a church to discriminate against a gay applicant but not a trans applicant. 

Some Republican lawmakers assumed it was an oversight, and introduced stand-alone bills and amendments to restore the exemption, but were thwarted in committees, sparking passionate, angry exchanges between conservative Republicans in the Legislature and DFL lawmakers.

Republicans held a press conference Monday to try to draw attention to the issue, complaining that the mainstream press has largely ignored what they called an “unprecedented attack” on religious autonomy.

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, portrayed DFL resistance as part of an “alarming rise” in persecution of religious people.

“This is important to all faiths in the state of Minnesota,” she said. 

Renee Carlson, general counsel for True North Legal, which represents religious groups, has warned lawmakers that the state is inviting a plethora of lawsuits, noting that the “ministerial exception” was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. The court ruled in 2020 that the government cannot control religious schools’ hiring decisions.

Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey, said during the press conference that there’s already an open MDHR investigation against a school over a hiring decision involving gender identity.

On Feb. 29, Niska tried to restore the exemption with an amendment to a MDHR technical bill (SF4292/ HF4021). When he suggested the DFL inadvertently forgot to include the religious exemption last session, committee chair Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, corrected him, saying, “It was not an oversight.”

That led to several passionate, angry exchanges during the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee meeting. Several religious leaders testified in favor of the amendment — including president of the Islamic Center of Minnesota, Zaheer Baber, who said without it, people of faith, including over 200,000 Minnesota Muslims, would be marginalized.


Senate committee takes up amendment at 1 a.m.

The issue arose in the Senate — in the same MDHR technical bill —  during a 1 a.m. committee hearing as lawmakers raced to beat a Friday deadline. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, offered the religious exemption amendment.

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, told the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee that lawmakers took away the church’s ability to make decisions in accordance with their beliefs.

“Biology is not bigotry, and should not be characterized as such,” Adkins said, calling DFL refusal to act on the issue a “tremendous act of hostility to people of faith.”

The Rev. Fred Hinz, public policy advocate for the Lutheran church-Missouri Synod, which represents about 500 congregations and schools, said they need the ability to choose leaders without government interference. He called the removal of the religious exemption a rejection of religious liberty and a direct attack on the autonomy of the church.

Yusuf Abdulle, executive director of the Islamic Association of North America, also testified in support of Limmer’s amendment, saying Islamic religious institutions will be vulnerable to unjustified interference.

He said in his faith, men and women are spiritual equals but have complementary religious roles: Women cannot lead men in prayer but may lead other women; unrelated men and women cannot be alone in the same room; and women must cover certain areas of their body with headscarves, for example.

If the law required them to ignore gender, “They’d have to choose between obeying the state or God,” Abdulle said.

Sen. Bonnie Westlin, DFL-Plymouth, responded that she, too, is a person of faith, and religious freedom is a deeply held value and protected by the state and federal Constitution. The debate, however, is unrelated to the simple housekeeping MDHR bill she authored, she said.

The amendment failed in the Senate committee, 5-3, along party lines.

Those seeking the religious exemption include the Minnesota Catholic Conference, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Agudath Israel, Islamic Center of Minnesota, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Transform MN—the Evangelical Network, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Association of Christian Schools International, Islamic Association of North America, Minnesota Family Council, True North Legal and the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition.


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