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The Iowa Victory and What It Means for Massachusetts Churches

Christiana Kiefer
Iowa’s “Sorry We Got Caught” Brochure Edit Didn’t Change Bad Law That Still Threatens Churches

Last week, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys dismissed a religious freedom lawsuit against Iowa officials after a federal judge affirmed the right of churches to operate free of government control.

In the first case of its kind in the nation, Iowa officials exploited a vague state law and declared that churches could not only be forced to open their sex-specific showers and restrooms to members of the opposite sex, but they could also be required to censor any teaching about human sexuality that might make a person feel “unwelcome” or “objectionable.” This government-dictated view of sexuality conflicted with the beliefs of numerous churches across Iowa, including Fort Des Moines Church of Christ.

Five days after ADF filed its lawsuit challenging this infringement of the church’s religious liberty, Iowa officials retracted their most controversial statements. But they continued to maintain that Iowa bureaucrats, not the church, should decide which church activities were “secular” and subject the church to the law. In their arguments to the court, these same officials doubled-down, insisting that they could constitutionally treat churches like businesses, replete with genderless restrooms and speech codes.

But a federal judge stepped in and clarified that government bureaucrats have no business trying to control churches.

The court held:


1. Churches are not public accommodations


Churches are not—and have never been—places of “public accommodation” required to comply with anti-discrimination laws. Historically, public accommodations were limited to businesses that provided essential public services: hotels, restaurants, and public transit. But more recently, lawmakers have stretched these laws to cover essentially any business that serves the public in any way.

But contrary to Iowa’s arguments to the court, attending a church service is not like buying a hamburger from McDonalds or a loaf of bread from a supermarket shelf. Churches are not businesses. Churches consist of fellow believers who desire to live out their faith together through worship, mutual edification, and public witness to their communities. Visitors are invited and welcomed, not as customers, but as guests. And as any guest knows, he or she must respect the host’s religious convictions and facility policies.

Consistent with decades of nationwide precedent, the federal judge noted in her opinion that “state and federal courts have held that churches and programs they host are not places of public accommodation” subject to intrusive public accommodations laws.


2. Church activities are infused with religious purpose


The court also recognized that every activity a church hosts—from weddings to soup kitchens to community movie nights—is infused with religious meaning and purpose. Churches host these events to foster goodwill and relationships with their neighbors so that they can tangibly serve and share the good news of Christ’s redemptive work with their communities. Even events that a government bureaucrat might superficially think are “secular” are motivated by the church’s religious convictions. Government bureaucrats are incapable of distinguishing the sacred from the secular, and have no business trying to determine which church activities are genuinely religious, and which ones are not.

The court rightly noted that every activity of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ is religious in nature, and therefore exempt from bureaucratic control.


So, what does this mean for Massachusetts?


You may recall that Massachusetts bureaucrats ripped a page from the Iowa playbook and similarly declared that churches are subject to state public accommodations laws. An unelected Massachusetts commission announced that it would decide what public activities of a church are religious enough to avoid becoming subject to the laws. It expressly stated that if a church hosts a spaghetti supper, and invites the public, that church is transformed into a place of public accommodation and is subject to its state gender identity law.

Any church that refuses to bow to the government’s edict and open women’s private changing areas and restrooms to biological men would be sanctioned with crippling fines and even jail time. ADF filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four Massachusetts churches, asking a federal judge to step in and stop Massachusetts officials from trying to unconstitutionally control churches in violation of their faith.

While the Iowa decision is not directly binding on Massachusetts courts, it does set important persuasive precedent as the first case in the nation to consider whether government bureaucrats can control churches, especially in the context of a gender identity law.

Iowa rightly affirmed the freedom of churches to operate consistently with their faith without fearing unjust government punishment. Massachusetts should follow suit.

Christiana Holcomb
Christiana Kiefer
Senior Counsel
Christiana (Holcomb) Kiefer serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where she is a key member of the Center for Conscience Initiatives.