That flip-flopping sound you hear is the Iowa Civil Rights Commission trying to figure out how it can apply its Civil Rights Act against churches without stomping all over the Constitution’s protection of free speech and the free exercise of religion. And they seem to be having a difficult time.
Yesterday, ADF attorneys argued in federal court on behalf of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, which is opposing the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s attempt to dictate what churches can teach and how they use the facilities in their houses of worship.
It all started when the commission distributed a brochure saying that churches in the state are subject to the Iowa Civil Rights Act and its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity during church activities that are “not related to a bona fide religious purpose.” The brochure listed a church service open to the public as one of these non-bona fide religious purpose activities. The brochure also called for churches to open their changing facilities, restrooms, and other private areas to members of the opposite biological sex. Any violations would be met with heavy fines.
In other words, a politically appointed commission interpreted the law to mean that pastors must censor their teaching on human sexuality during church services because they are open to the public. To them, this ensures that the teaching of God’s Word doesn’t offend anyone who attends the service.
But churches are not public accommodations—they’re places of worship. And if the commission cannot acknowledge that, let alone understand the purpose of a church service, then it definitely shouldn’t be telling churches what they can and cannot teach during those services or how they use their facilities.
Once the brochure was publicized, naturally, public outcry ensued. A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights even sent the Iowa commission a letter arguing that their interpretation was unconstitutional. And ADF filed a lawsuit arguing that applying the law to a church violated the church’s constitutional rights.
Soon after, the commission backpedaled and posted a revised version of the brochure that slightly modified its interpretation without making any changes to the actual law. Here’s the new and hardly improved version:
“Places of worship are generally exempt from the Iowa law’s prohibition of discrimination, unless the place of worship engages in non-religious activities which are open to the public. For example, the law may apply to an independent day care or polling place located on the premises of the place of worship.” (There was no change to the restroom section.)
Are we to believe this unelected group of officials will begin monitoring churches and determining what is said during what they believe to be “non-religious” activities? Or, will they just wait until someone files a complaint because they were offended by something that was said in church or because they were expected to use the restroom that matched their biological sex? Or will activists complain until the commission uploads a new brochure at whim?
The commission has asked the court to dismiss our lawsuit, but they haven’t solved the problem. The way things stand now would leave Iowa churches like Fort Des Moines Church of Christ vulnerable. All that would have to happen is for the commission to decide that a church is violating the law while engaging in what they believe to be a “non-religious” activity.
Most churches attempt to welcome everyone who wants to walk through their doors. But that doesn’t mean they can turn their back on what the bible says or choose not to teach on a topic because they are afraid someone might be offended.
The only solution here is to strike down this unconstitutional law and establish clear protection for churches to teach as they please and use their houses of worship in accordance with those teachings.
Putting a stop to real violations of Separation of Church and State
Activists love to use “Separation of Church and State” as some kind of masterful excuse for why people of faith, especially Christians, should keep their “religion” out of the public square. These days however, those same activists seem to have a tougher time keeping their own ideology out of the church. That’s why ADF has created a free legal guide to help ministries across the U.S. defend their right to act in accordance with their faith.
Download the “Protecting Your Ministry” Handbook