SOUTH EUCLID, Ohio — Supported by the national non-profit legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, a small independent catholic school in South Euclid has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, alleging an ordinance enacted in 2018 infringes upon the school’s religious liberties and First Amendment rights.
The Lyceum, a catholic school with an enrollment of around 53 students, filed the lawsuit on Wednesday. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief and damages against the City of South Euclid. At its core, the lawsuit alleges the city’s 2018 anti-discrimination ordinance violates the school’s religious rights by threatening civil penalties and jail time because of the school’s deeply-held religious beliefs on marriage and gender identity. The lawsuit also alleges the ordinance infringes upon the school’s First Amendment rights by preventing the institution from implementing internal admissions and hiring policies that are closely aligned with the school’s faith.
“Ever since it was brought up we have been forthright and clear of the threat that the city’s ordinance presents to the Lyceum,” said headmaster Luke Macik. “Religious schools like the Lyceum have the freedom to operate consistently with our beliefs, but the city’s ordinance jeopardizes that freedom and threatens to crush us.”
Keith Benjamin, the city’s director of community services, insists that the Lyceum is not currently under any threat by the city. Although the city has not yet been formally served with the lawsuit, Benjamin said the city’s law department intends to defend itself.
In April 2018, the City Council passed a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy which forbids discrimination on the basis of gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, among other classes, when it comes to employment and public accommodations. The ordinance was first introduced nearly a year before its passage. In that time, city officials worked in conjunction with the catholic diocese, Equality Ohio and, at various points, the Lyceum, Benjamin said.
Although the Lyceum’s teachings are closely aligned with Catholicism, the school is independent of the Diocese of Cleveland. The school leases a building from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.
During the molding of the ordinance, an entire section was titled: “Prohibited Acts of Discrimination Relating to Educational Institution.” The removal of these provisions, the city argues, excludes the ordinance from applying to educational institutions like the Lyceum. However, the ordinance does not specifically exclude educational institutions under its general exceptions provision. Benjamin said those protections are covered by state and federal law, which both supersede local ordinance.
The ordinance does not prohibit a religious or denominational institution from, “preferring to employ an individual of a particular religion to perform work connected with the performance of religious activities by the institution,” the ordinance states.
Christiana Holcomb, an attorney from Alliance Defending Freedom, said the ordinance was, "horribly written and vague."
“The Lyceum actually sent a letter to the law director of the city asking them specifically, ‘does the law apply to our school? Do you intend to apply the law to our school?’ And the city essentially said, ‘find yourself a lawyer,’” Holcomb said. “The Lyceum, in the face of $500 per day fines and 60 days of jail time, has no other option to assume that the city does plan to apply the law to the school.”
Benjamin said the ordinance was modeled after similar pieces of legislation that were enacted in other municipalities, including Cuyahoga County, Cleveland and Akron. While there were no ongoing allegations of discrimination lobbied against any business in the city prior to enacting the ordinance, Benjamin said the legislation was an important component to the city’s progressive approach.
“It is heartbreaking that an organization called Alliance Defending Freedom would not work to defend the rights of all people who live in our community," Benjamin said. "All educational institutions are not a component of this law so it does not affect them as far as I can see."
Another major component of the school’s lawsuit against the city concerns a provision in the ordinance that forbids a business or a place of public accommodation from printing, publishing or posting a statement, advertisement or sign that indicates that someone would be refused service at the particular location for a discriminatory reason. Because of this provision and fearing possible penalties, the Lyceum has been reluctant to ratify and implement a “sexuality policy” and employment policy to explain what the school’s beliefs are and what is to be expected of students and staff, official said.
The Lyceum contends this violates their First Amendment rights.
“Part of the law actually contains a publication ban, a speech ban that prohibits them from communicating anything that might make an individual feel unwelcome or objectionable. Those terms, while vague, are also not defined adequately in the law,” Holcomb said. “The Lyceum is not asking to impose its religious convictions on anyone. It just wants to the freedom to operate consistently by them itself.”
The policy that the Lyceum intends to implement also requires students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their sex. The Lyceum will not permit sex-specific facilities to be accessed by members of the opposite sex, regardless of gender identity, the lawsuit states. The policy would also apply to sex-specific sports teams associated with the school. In the lawsuit, the school said that it reasonably fears that adopting these formal policies will put the institution in violation of the city ordinance.
Alliance Defending Freedom has been involved in numerous landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, including Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. as well as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.