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Church asks court to halt Iowa commission from enforcing speech ban

Recent brochure changes only further illustrate vagueness of unchanged law

DES MOINES, Iowa – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing an Iowa church filed a motion Wednesday that asks a federal court to stop the Iowa Civil Rights Commission from censoring the church’s teaching on biblical sexuality and from forcing the church to open its restrooms and showers to members of the opposite sex. ADF attorneys explain that recent changes to a public accommodations brochure the commission produced are insufficient to alleviate the concerns raised in the church’s lawsuit, filed earlier this month.

The filing comes on the same day that Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a letter to Iowa Civil Rights Commission Chairperson Angela Jackson explaining that the “approach taken by the ICRC plainly violates both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

“Cosmetic changes to the alarming language in one brochure won’t fix the unconstitutionality of the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Churches should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment, and until the law is changed, every church in Iowa has a right to be concerned. That’s why we are asking the court to issue an injunction that makes certain that this law will not be enforced against our client while this lawsuit proceeds. No state or local law should threaten the foundational First Amendment protections for free speech and the free exercise of religion.”

A state law 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 the newly revised language 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 argue 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.

As the ADF brief in support of a motion for preliminary injunction explains, “the Commission’s revisions only serve to highlight the vagueness and imprecision of the exemption and leave the door wide-open to numerous (additional) interpretations. What does the Commission consider to be ‘non-religious activities?’ What standard or analytical tool will it employ so that churches may anticipate and avoid Commission intervention and liability? No Commission rule defines the newly-minted term. Persons of ordinary intelligence are left to speculate….”

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.

“The act’s coercive demands harm the church’s ability to teach its doctrines, to govern itself, and to follow its faith without fear that the government will overstep its bounds and impose illegitimate requirements,” said ADF Senior Counsel Steven O’Ban. “The church understandably needs more than surface-level changes to a brochure. That’s why it is asking the court for this injunction—to bar the government from areas where it doesn’t belong: the church’s showers and restrooms, its sanctuary, and its pulpit.”

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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