Pastor of Southbridge church says bathroom law threatens religious beliefs

SOUTHBRIDGE – The senior pastor of the House of Destiny Church on Mill Street, who is also chairman of the Town Council, found himself on the receiving end of suggestions he discriminates against transgender people last week.

The harsh criticism against the Rev. Esteban Carrasco Jr. surfaced soon after it became public Tuesday that the House of Destiny Church, which is also known as Iglesia Casa de Destino, was one of four Massachusetts churches to file a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that alleges the churches are forced to speak and act contrary to their Christian faith.

The Massachusetts Legislature passed a law last year requiring all public accommodations to implement policies that are properly inclusive of transgender individuals.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the churches by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization, said the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and Attorney General Maura Healey both interpret the commonwealth’s public accommodations laws, as amended by the Legislature in July, to force churches to open church changing rooms, shower facilities, restrooms and other intimate areas based on their perceived gender identity, and not their biological sex, in violation of the churches’ religious beliefs.

Because those laws also prohibit covered entities from making statements intended to discriminate or to incite others to do so, the commission and attorney general also intend to force churches and pastors to refrain from religious expression regarding sexuality that conflicts with the government’s views, the Alliance Defending Freedom said.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the matter in an interview with the Telegram & Gazette, Rev. Carrasco said:

“It’s all about the freedom to teach our beliefs and operate our houses of worship according to our faith, without being threatened by the government.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom complaint asserts that the Legislature and MCAD failed to provide an exemption for religious institutions, nor did MCAD attempt to define secular activities that it believed might subject a church to the law.

The MCAD stated it would review a charge involving religious institutions or religious exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

The Alliance Defending Freedom said a pastor, church leader or court “must guess” as to which of the church’s activities subject it to the law, which includes fines of $50,000 per violation, up to 365 days in jail, and lawyers’ fees.

Rev. Carrasco, who founded House of Destiny in April 2012 with his wife, said, “The AG and ‘unelected’ commission has come down with these interpretations, and these threatening messages, that we’re going to be charged with jail time, with fines, if we are not subject to what the government wants.”

Rev. Carrasco said the administrative team for the church of 100 to 120 members made the decision collectively to be included in the lawsuit.

Since its existence, the church has been involved in almost every community activity, Rev. Carrasco said. Next month it will again host a free Thanksgiving Day meal for residents, with delivery service, he said.

“We will continue to love our community,” he said. “This is not discrimination. This is not hate. We’re a diverse church. We have 17 nations represented and we have people from every walk of life.”

But “if you take this away, if religious liberty is taken away, all civil liberties are going to collapse,” he said. “Religious liberty is the cornerstone of the First Amendment.”

Asked if any of House of Destiny’s members were of the LGBT community, Rev. Carrasco said, “I don’t think that question is relevant to what we’re talking about. I think, really, what this talks about is religious liberty.”

And when asked if the church welcomes the LGBT community, the pastor raised his voice and said, “We welcome anybody and everybody. Our doors are open. We’re not a business, and I think people need to understand that. But we are a house of worship, and we are open for anybody and everybody to come in to learn about our faith and to worship with us. But if you’re coming through our doors, you need to respect our faith.”

To the backlash on social media suggesting he’s prejudiced, Rev. Carrasco said, “I’m sad. I’m disappointed. But I’m not here to entertain that because that’s not who I am. We love people. We welcome everybody.”

Lawyer Christiana Holcomb of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an alliance-building, nonprofit legal organization in Washington, D.C., “that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith,” joined the pastor on a conference call.

Ms. Holcomb said nationwide, only Iowa had taken similar action, but Massachusetts took it “one step further” by threatening pastors with jail time “simply for operating consistently with their faith.”

She said that the Massachusetts’ attorney general and MCAD’s actions were “almost unprecedented.”

Ms. Holcomb said the alliance’s lawsuit in Iowa was not much further ahead of its Massachusetts suit. The organization filed suit in Iowa in July. In August, the court held its first hearing on ADF’s motion seeking a preliminary injunction. A ruling is pending.

Ms. Holcomb suggested Iowa and Massachusetts laws could serve as a bellwether for the rest of the nation with respect to religious freedoms.

Southbridge School Committee member Amelia L. Peloquin was chief among Rev. Carrasco’s critics this week.

Ms. Peloquin, a former colleague of Rev. Carrasco on the council, said she was “completely disgusted” with the church for choosing to participate in the lawsuit. She said Rev. Carrasco should be ashamed of himself for his “active participation in LGBT discrimination.”

Ms. Peloquin, who is bisexual, said she’s upset because she spent years working to pass a transgender accommodations bill, which is the law at hand.

Ms. Peloquin said she wished Rev. Carrasco would take some time to educate himself on the issue and understand that “it’s just about basic human dignity” and not about compromising one’s religious beliefs. She said she respects that Rev. Carrasco is a social conservative, but would like for him to respect what’s become the law of the land.

Ms. Peloquin also noted that Rev. Carrasco recently voted against appointing Jacquelyn Ryan, a transgender woman, to the Southbridge Town Council Education and Human Services subcommittee, despite Ms. Ryan being the only applicant to the position. Ms. Peloquin suggested it offered further proof that Rev. Carrasco is regressive.

Rev. Carrasco said the issue and his vote against Ms. Ryan are “two different issues.”