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Supreme Court of the United States

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

By Christiana Holcomb posted on:
October 17, 2017

Some have asked why Alliance Defending Freedom did not drop its lawsuit and declare victory after the Iowa Civil Rights Commission changed its controversial brochure applying a state speech ban and restroom law to churches.

We didn’t drop the lawsuit—because changing the brochure did not make the unconstitutional state law constitutional.

The brochure itself was appalling. For the first time in our nation’s history, a state openly applied its sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) law to churches. According to the state’s own words, Iowa churches that welcome the public to their church services must censor their teaching on human sexuality and open their restrooms, changing facilities, and other sensitive areas to members of the opposite biological sex. Failure to comply is punished with crippling fines.

Numerous voices decried the brochure, including Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Iowa commission backpedaled, and just days after ADF announced its lawsuit, pulled the controversial brochure from its website and issued a newly scrubbed version. Nothing, of course, prevents the commission from reissuing the old version at some future point.

But even more concerning, the Commission used the new brochure to entrench its position and insist that the Commission can apply the SOGI law to churches when it determines that a church is somehow engaged in a “non-religious” activity. Minor cosmetic changes to one brochure cannot mask the fact that the Commission still intends to apply the unconstitutional law to churches.

The underlying problem is the SOGI law itself. The Iowa law is vague. It vaguely defines where the law applies (“public accommodations”) and vaguely defines where it doesn’t (institutions with a “bona fide religious purpose”). And who decides? Political appointees sitting on the Iowa commission get to both interpret and enforce the law—and we have already seen them do so in a way that infringes on precious First Amendment freedoms.

No unelected bureaucrat should be given the power to troll through a church’s activities and weigh whether they have a sufficiently “religious purpose” to merit an exemption from the law. Everything a church does is informed by its faith. In a culture that is increasingly unable to recognize that faith motivates far more than simply Sunday morning worship, this unchecked bureaucratic power poses a substantial threat to the free exercise of the faithful. If Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state has any true meaning, it is to prevent the state from such intrusions into church affairs.

The law is vague enough for the commission to continue classifying churches as “public accommodations”—businesses—subject to the SOGI law. While the government has more leeway to regulate businesses, it has no such power over churches. Churches are not, and have never been, public accommodations. They are sacred spaces that the First Amendment explicitly protects from state interference. Churches have the constitutional right to select their beliefs, teach their beliefs, and govern their houses of worship consistently with their beliefs, without government interference.

But as it currently stands, Iowa’s law hangs like Damocles’ sword over Iowa churches. Churches need clarity. They need reassurance that their religious freedoms will be respected by their governing authorities—not subject to bureaucratic whim. No pastor should live in fear that his prayerful exposition of God’s Word could land him at the wrong end of a state enforcement proceeding.  

As a result, Alliance Defending Freedom cannot leave the task unfinished. We will continue to press forward and challenge this unconstitutional law.

Christiana Holcomb

Christiana Holcomb

Legal Counsel

Christiana Holcomb serves as legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, where she is a key member of the Center for Christian Ministries.

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