DES MOINES, Iowa — A congregation on Iowa has filed a federal lawsuit against the state Civil Rights Commission over concerns that its interpretation of local laws pertaining to gender identity prohibits churches from speaking about or living out its beliefs on the issue.
According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which filed the suit on Monday, the Commission’s publication “Public Accommodations Provider’s Guide to Iowa Law” says 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 publication reads.
In addition to regulations about public accommodations, the Des Moines city code 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…”
Fort Des Moines Church of Christ says that the law, coupled with the Commission’s interpretation, has caused its leaders to be mum on certain issues out of concern that it “will be sanctioned if it expresses its religious beliefs regarding biological sex during its religious services, Bible studies, other religious programming, and various events and activities held in its buildings, or if it distributes its facility policy regarding shower and restroom use.”
Cornerstone World Outreach has similar concerns, and has likewise obtained legal counsel over the matter.
“It’s fundamentally wrong and I can’t comply with that,” Pastor Cary Gordon told the Daily Signal.. “I’ve taken an oath to the Lord Jesus Christ, and I obey the Bible above all men. … I have to obey God, and that puts me in a precarious position.”
The legal group First Liberty sent a demand letter to the Commission on Tuesday, contending that its interpretation of the law “is a government mandate that the church violate its sincerely held religious beliefs under penalty of law.”
“[T]he Commission requires places of public accommodation, which includes churches, to segregate living facilities, locker rooms, and restrooms based on gender identity. In other words, Cornerstone cannot require that patrons and congregants use its facilities based on their biological sex,” it wrote.
“Furthermore, the Brochure’s sweeping language forbidding ‘hostility’ and ‘unwelcom[ing]’ speech could be interpreted as restricting Cornerstone’s ability to teach its religious beliefs. Each of these mandates is an impermissible violation of Cornerstone World Outreach’s constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and
free speech,” the letter continued.
First Liberty is asking that the Commission alter its guidelines and declare that Cornerstone World Outreach will be exempt from any enforcement action. The group may likewise file a legal challenge if the response is not satisfactory.
“This is a clear case of the state violating the sanctity of the church. It should send chills down the spine of every congregation in Iowa,” Chief of Staff Chelsey Youman said in a statement. “The State of Iowa claims it has the power to regulate what churches can teach about human sexuality and how they operate their facilities. The government has absolutely no authority to force a church to violate its religious beliefs. This is a massive violation of the First Amendment.”
“Churches should be free to teach their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without being threatened by the government. That is a foundational First Amendment principle,” also remarked ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb.
“Churches have always been protected from government intrusion, and they still are,” she added. “They have a firmly established freedom to teach their beliefs and set internal policies that reflect their biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality. One can hardly imagine a more obvious unconstitutional invasion of the state into the internal affairs of the church.”