Two Iowa churches are taking their state civil rights commission to federal court over guidelines that could place a gag order on the church’s teachings about sexual morality. Those guidelines could also require Iowa churches to open their private men and women’s bathrooms to individuals of the opposite sex.
One lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern Iowa by the Fort des Moines Church of Christ. The litigation seeks to exempt the church from “public accommodation” provisions of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Like many states, Iowa has recently adopted language in their “public accommodations” laws that prohibit discrimination based on so-called “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
The Iowa Civil Rights Act states that places of public accommodation may not adopt viewpoints on human sexuality that would “directly or indirectly” cause “persons of any particular sexual orientation or gender identity” to feel “unwelcome, not acceptable, or not solicited.” The Iowa Civil Rights Commission issued a brochure that stated that the law’s provisions would apply to “a church service open to the public.”
The brochure sparked a sharp reaction from the religious community, and the Commission then revised it. The new guidelines state that places of worship are “generally exempt” from the scope of the law, unless a church “engages in non-religious activities which are open to the public.”
The new brochure spells out that the “public accommodations” requirements apply to activities on church property which do not have a “bona fide religious purpose.” An example provided would be a child care facility operated by a church that provides care outside of a church service to families who are not members of the church.
The Iowa Civil Rights Act also contains a facility use mandate that stipulates that restrooms and other private facilities must be accessible to persons based on their so-called “gender identity. It is unclear whether the Commission intends to enforce that requirement against churches, whether they consider their activities “bona fide” or not.
Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, says that Iowa civil rights authorities have crossed a constitutional bright line. “Christians should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment. It is not acceptable for government officials to be telling churches what is religious and what is not.”
Steven O’Ban, senior counsel for ADF, says they are asking the federal court to issue a preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of the law against houses of worship in Iowa. The motion asserts that the Iowa Civil Rights Commission has no authority to ignore First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and religion. “Neither the commission nor any state law has the constitutional authority to dictate how a church uses its facility or what public statements a church can make concerning human sexuality,” O’Ban says.
Another lawsuit has been filed by Cornerstone World Outreach, a church in Sioux City. Pastor Cary Gordon accused the state Civil Rights Commission of “acting like a First Amendment Gestapo–hunting down and harassing churches trying to live out their Christian convictions. The state is trying to exercise the power to correct or control what I say and teach out of the Bible. It’s fundamentally wrong and I can’t comply with that.”
“This is a clear case of the state violating the sanctity of the church,” says Chelsey Youman, chief of staff at First Liberty, which is representing the Sioux City church. “It should send chills down the spine of every congregation in Iowa. We think it’s an absolute wake-up call to churches across America that a state government can tell you what you can say and not say about your own doctrinal beliefs within the confines of your church.”
Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, says the civil rights guidelines amount to government censorship of the religious community. “‘What constitutes ‘non-religious’ activities, and who decides what those are? What about churches that allow use of their auditoriums for high school graduations? What about a church that hosts a barbeque cook-off for the community?…Did the Last Supper qualify as a religious event? What about the feeding of the five thousand?”
The extreme severity of the threats to religious freedom in this nation cannot be illustrated more clearly than by remarks recently made by the Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Martin Castro stated that “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” have become “code words” for “discrimination, intolerance…and Christian supremacy.”
Repeated efforts have been made in the Missouri Legislature in recent years to amend the state’s anti-discrimination statutes to include so-called “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Such laws have resulted in punitive fines to bakers, florists, photographers, and wedding vendors who declined participation in same-sex union ceremonies.
Similar “gay rights” laws have even resulted in the loss of tax-exempt status to a church. Now they are threatening to silence the very teaching of the Word of God from the pulpit. It is expected that this issue will be debated once again during the 2017 session of the Missouri Legislature. It is important that you urge your state legislators to take a firm stand for the freedom to practice our faith.