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."