DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa Human Rights Commission has altered the language of its public accommodations brochure in an attempt to assuage concerns about requirements for houses of worship, but one group says that it doesn’t go far enough to protect religious freedom.
As previously reported, the Commission’s previous publication “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.
In addition to regulations about public accommodations, one of the Des Moines nondiscrimination laws highlighted by concerned parties 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…”
But following a lawsuit from attorneys representing Fort Des Moines Church of Christ and a demand letter from attorneys representing Cornerstone World Outreach, the Commission adjusted the concerning section of its brochure to provide clarification.
The groups had expressed concern that the Commission might punish churches for their restroom policies and/or for speaking about their biblical stances on gender identity.
“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.”
But the Commission says 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 on Friday.
However, some are still concerned about the language in the publication and state that it does not go far enough to provide assurances that churches will not face legal sanctions.
“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,” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) legal counsel Christiana Holcomb, who represents Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, said in a statement.
But First Liberty, which represents Cornerstone World Outreach, is pleased with the results.
“We’re taking the state at its word that it will not encroach on the church in any way,” remarked Chief of Staff Chelsey Youman. “However, if it does in the future, we stand ready to use the full force of the law to protect the church’s free exercise of religion and free speech under the Constitution.”