This week, a lawsuit was filed against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission by Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of Ft. Des Moines Church of Christ. On Thursday a second church, Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City, filed a separate lawsuit through the First Liberty Institute.
The lawsuits stem from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s interpretation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act as it relates to churches that was expressed in a 2012 brochure entitled “Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity: A Public Accommodations Provider’s Guide to Iowa Law” which read:
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).
Today the Iowa Civil Rights Commission released a revised brochure that provided clearer language as the law relates to religious institutions.
“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has never considered a complaint against a church or other place of worship on this issue,” said director Kristin H. Johnson. “This statute was amended to add these protected classes (sexual orientation and gender identity) in 2007 and has been in effect since then. 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. The Commission regrets the confusion caused by the previous publication.”
The language in the new brochure reads:
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. For example, the law may apply to an independent day care or polling place located on the premises of the place of worship.
Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told Caffeinated Thoughts in an interview recorded Friday morning (interview will air on Saturday on Caffeinated Thoughts Radio on The Truth Network 99.3fm) said that the Commission needs to be held accountable even if they tweak the brochure.
“We have to hold commission like this accountable, we can’t let them get away with it. Even if they say, that’s not exactly what we mean, let me tweak the brochure, let me do something a little bit differently,” Holcomb said. “Well, no this is how you have interpreted the law. You don’t have the authority to pass the bounds that are set by the United States Constitutions, the protections that are guaranteed to its citizens, and so this is so necessary that we bring these pre-enforcement challenges so that the boundaries are set and they are clear.”
Update: ADF sent a formal statement from Christiana Holcomb after the publication of this article.
“Cosmetic changes to the alarming language in one brochure won’t fix the unconstitutionality of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Churches should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission had no constitutional basis for including explicit threats against houses of worship in any of its materials. 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. No state or local law should threaten free speech and the free exercise of religion as protected by the First Amendment. Because the Iowa law does that, ADF will continue to challenge the law to bring certainty to Iowa churches.”