DES MOINES, Iowa — An attorney for the state of Iowa asked a federal judge on Wednesday to dismiss a congregation’s concerns that the Iowa Human Rights Commission might interpret local laws pertaining to gender identity as prohibiting houses of worship from living out its beliefs on the issue.
As previously reported, the Commission’s initial publication issued earlier this year, entitled “Public Accommodations Provider’s Guide to Iowa Law,” noted that sometimes churches are required to follow restroom use and speech laws.“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),” the brochure read.
One of Des Moines nondiscrimination laws also outlines that it is illegal to “[d]irectly or indirectly print or circulate or cause to be printed or circulated any advertisement, statement, publication or use any form of application for entrance and membership which expresses, directly or indirectly, any limitation, specification or discrimination as to race, religion, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry or disability…”
Therefore, out of concern that the Commission might punish churches for their restroom policies and/or for speaking about their biblical stances on gender identity, the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ filed a lawsuit over the matter.
Attorneys representing Cornerstone World Outreach also sent a demand letter to the Commission, contending that its interpretation of the law “is a government mandate that the church violate its sincerely held religious beliefs under penalty of law.”
In response, the Commission adjusted the concerning section of its brochure to provide clarification.
“Places of worship (e.g. churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) are generally exempt from the Iowa law’s prohibition of discrimination, unless the place of worship engages in non-religious activities which are open to the public,” the new text now reads. “The law may apply to an independent day care or polling places located on the premises of the place of worship.”
It asserted that its original language was never meant to punish pastors.
“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has not done anything to suggest it would be enforcing these laws against ministers in the pulpit, and there has been no new publication or statement from the ICRC raising the issue,” director Kristin Johnson told the Des Moines Register.
But attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said that the fix did not go far enough to provide assurances that churches will not face legal sanctions as it still applies to “non-religious activities which are open to the public.”
“While the commission was right to remove some of the most disturbing language in its brochure, the change in the brochure doesn’t fix the inherent problem with the Civil Rights Act that forms the basis of the lawsuit—that the act gives the commission power to determine what parts of a church’s activities do not have a ‘bona fide religious purpose’ and are thereby subject to the act’s prohibitions,” ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Molly Weber, along with Des Moines attorney Michelle Mackel, asked U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose to toss the legal challenge, asserting that the concerns are unfounded.
“This is a case about unreasonable fears,” Weber said, although repeating during the hearing that there might be some situations where the rules would apply, such as using the church for day care or a polling station.
ADF attorney Steve O’Ban contended that it is “unprecedented” for any state to apply public accommodations laws to churches, and said that the Commission had too much discretion to determine whether an activity is religious or not.
He provided an example of a church having a movie night that was open to the public, and questioned if the Commission would launch an investigation and discern whether the activity was religious enough if there were ever a complaint.
“You don’t sift through the activities and weigh whether one is religious and one is not,” O’Ban said, according to the Des Moines Register. “Are they going to sit there with a checklist?”
Rose is expected to rule on the matter in the near future. She acknowledged during the hearing that the matter involved “complex constitutional issues” as it pertains to activities at houses of worship that are outside of scheduled church services.