What just happened?
Fort Des Moines Church of Christ of Des Moines, Iowa, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to stop “the government 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.”
What is the Iowa Civil Rights Commission doing to churches?
The Iowa Civil Rights Commission interprets the section of the Iowa Civil Rights Act pertaining to public accommodations in a way that would force churches to allow individuals access to church restrooms, shower facilities, and changing rooms based on his or her gender identity, irrespective of biological sex.
The law prohibits any public facility from denying access to “accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges” to any person based on numerous factors, including gender identity. This means that public facilities in Iowa must allow people who identify as transgender to use showers and restrooms of their choosing.
Doesn’t the law provide an exemption for churches and other religious organizations?
The law states that it shall not apply to “any bona fide religious institution with respect to any qualifications the institution may impose based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.”
But a pamphlet issued by the Commission — “A Public Accommodations Provider’s Guide to Iowa Law” — claims that the law “sometimes” applies to churches. Under the section titled, “Does this law apply to churches?” the response is:
Sometimes. Iowa law provides that these protections do not apply to religious institutions with respect to any religion-based qualifications when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose. Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions. (e.g. a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public). [Emphasis and underlining in original]
Wouldn’t a regular Sunday morning church service be considered “open to the public”?
The example provided in the pamphlet appears to imply that every church service in which visitors are welcome would be required to allow people to use restroom facilities of their choosing. As the lawsuit notes, it would also affect “communal worship, other religious services, Sunday School classes, Bible studies, youth oriented activities, annual vacation Bible schools, Easter activities, Christmas pageants, and other ministries, all of which are open to the public.”
Additionally, even activities the Church undertakes that “do not contain overt religious inculcation are religious in nature because they engender other important elements of religious meaning, expression, and purpose, such as mutual encouragement, relationship-building, demonstrating the Church’s interest in the welfare of others, and nurturing spiritual gifts to be used for the benefit of church members and the community. Events that further these religious objectives and are also open to the public include scrapbook meetings, weight loss group meetings, ‘pot luck’ dinners, and family movie nights.”
Does the law affect only the church’s accommodations?
Not necessarily. It may also have free speech implications. As the lawsuit says, “The Act and City Code prohibit the Church from issuing statements that might cause individuals to believe that they are unwelcome because of their perceived gender identity. The language of the Act and the City Code are broad enough to include within that prohibition sermons, theological expositions, educational speeches, newsletters or church worship bulletin text, or other statements from the Church and its leaders.”
The law would therefore discriminate against churches whose views on gender identity disagreed with the state (i.e., orthodox, Bible-believing churches) and affirm churches that already agree with the state about transgender issues (i.e., liberal, LGBT-affirming congregations).
What is being doing to protect the religious freedoms of Iowa churches?
On behalf of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a “pre-enforcement challenge,” a type of lawsuit that allows citizens to challenge a law before the government enforces it against them. The federal court could issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting its application to churches and/or rule that the application of the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.