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ADF attorneys dismantle Iowa commission’s defense of church speech ban

New brief filed on behalf of church explains need to stop state from attempting to control churches
Fort Des Moines Church of Christ v. Jackson

DES MOINES, Iowa – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing an Iowa church filed a brief Monday in federal court that exposes deficiencies in the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s arguments against suspending a law that censors and attempts to control churches. The commission’s application of the law censors the church’s teaching on biblical sexuality and forces the church to open its restrooms and showers to members of the opposite sex under certain conditions that the government dictates.

Last month, ADF attorneys filed a motion to temporarily suspend application of the law while the case moves forward in court and explained that recent changes to a public accommodations brochure the commission produced are insufficient to alleviate the concerns raised in the church’s lawsuit. The commission responded by doubling down on its extraconstitutional claim that it has the power to apply the law to churches and determine whether their activities are religious or not. It specifically analogized churches to for-profit businesses, seeming to miss the obvious constitutional differences between the two.

“Churches should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “It’s not good enough for government officials to say we should simply trust them to tell us what is religious and what isn’t. The law must be clear, and at present, the only thing that’s clear is that the law gives too much power to government bureaucrats who don’t even seem to understand the most basic constitutional principles.”

“In the meantime, the court should issue an injunction that makes certain that this law won’t be enforced against our client while this lawsuit proceeds,” added ADF Senior Counsel Steven O’Ban. “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.”

The law at issue, the Iowa Civil Rights Act, bans places of public accommodation from expressing their views on human sexuality if they would “directly or indirectly” make “persons of any particular…gender identity” feel “unwelcome.” The speech ban could be used to gag churches from making any public comments—including from the pulpit—that could be viewed as unwelcome to persons who do not identify with their biological sex because the commission has stated that the law applies to churches during any activity that the commission deems to not have a “bona fide religious purpose.”

Examples the commission previously gave in a brochure are “a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public,” which encompasses most events that churches hold. ADF attorneys explain that a recently revised version of the brochure isn’t much better, as it states that places of worship are only “generally exempt” from the law and that they will be subject to it if “the place of worship engages in non-religious activities which are open to the public.

ADF attorneys representing Fort Des Moines Church of Christ in Des Moines continue to point out that all events held at a church on its property have a bona fide religious purpose, and that the commission has no authority to violate the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion and speech. The Iowa Civil Rights Act also includes a facility use mandate that requires anyone subject to the law to open sensitive areas like locker rooms, showers, and restrooms to persons based on their “gender identity” rather than their biological sex.

As the ADF brief filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, Central Division, explains, the commission’s “overreach is entirely predictable in light of Iowa’s constitutionally flawed definition of public accommodation, which clearly encompasses churches. The Commission has twice tried to inform ‘churches’ and then ‘places of worship’ what activities will bring them under the Act. But in doing so, the Commission only highlights how the Act interferes into the internal affairs of houses of worship, and why a preliminary injunction is absolutely necessary to protect the Church from further chill of its constitutional rights.”

Timm Reid, one of more than 3,000 private attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel on behalf of the church in the case, Fort Des Moines Church of Christ v. Jackson.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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