A church’s lawsuit may go forward because it reasonably feared that Iowa’s strict anti-discrimination law would create legal penalties for its preaching and for having single-sex bathrooms and showers, an Iowa court has ruled.
“The government acts outside of its authority when it attempts to
control churches,” said Steve O’Ban, senior counsel with Alliance
Defending Freedom. “Neither the commission nor any state law has the
constitutional authority to dictate how any church uses its facility or
what public statements a church can make concerning sexuality.”
O’Ban represented Fort Des Moines Church of Christ in U.S. district
court. The church is suing based on fears the state’s
anti-discrimination policy on gender identity and sexual orientation
would make it legally liable for preaching and following its views on
homosexuality and transgender issues – including having single-sex
Judge Stephanie Rose of the U.S. District Court for the Southern
District of Iowa rejected state officials’ request to dismiss the
church’s lawsuit Oct. 14. She agreed with the church that the law had a
chilling effect on its speech.
Although the court denied the church’s request for a preliminary
injunction against enforcement of the law, it allowed the lawsuit to
proceed because the church’s fear of prosecution was “objectively
The church’s policy is likely permitted under the law because the
policy is “plainly drafted to serve a religious purpose,” the ruling
said. At the same time, the court said state and city officials’
statements that the law doesn’t apply to the church have little weight
because they do not prevent officials from enforcing the law.
Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, said the lawsuit was necessary.
“Churches should be free to talk about their religious beliefs and
operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing
government punishment,” she said.
O’Ban added: “As the court found, government bureaucrats don’t get to
decide which church activities have a religious purpose; that’s for the
church to decide.”
Earlier this year the Iowa Civil Rights Commission produced a guide to
Iowa law for public accommodations providers concerning sexual
orientation and gender identity.
The brochure-sized guide said the 2007 Iowa Civil Rights Act applies
to churches “sometimes.” It acknowledged that the law does not apply to
religious institutions in the matter of a “bona fide religious purpose,”
but appeared to open the door to prosecution.
“Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious
purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions. (e.g. a
child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the
public),” the pamphlet said.
It barred harassment including “intentional use of names and pronouns inconsistent with a person’s presented gender.”
According to the commission, the law requires locker rooms,
restrooms, and living facilities in places of public accommodation to be
open to persons based on their self-identified gender identity.
Those who believe they have been discriminated against may file a
complaint with the civil rights commission. The pamphlet said it was
designed for educational purposes only and not intended to be legal