The Story: A church in Iowa has filed a lawsuit against the state’s civil rights commission because a state law threatens to censor the church’s teaching on biblical sexuality and would force the church to open its restrooms and showers to members of the opposite sex.
The Background: 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.
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]
As the lawsuit notes, the commission’s interpretation of the statute would 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.”
The lawsuit also points out, “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.”
The language of the Iowa laws is also so broad that it would include a prohibition on sermons, theological expositions, educational speeches, newsletters, church worship bulletin text, or other statements from the church and its leaders that did not align with the state’s view of gender identity or use “gender inclusive” language.
On behalf of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) 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.
What It Means: Because the interpretation is so clearly unconstitutional, Fort Des Moines Church of Christ is likely to win the lawsuit. But the action taken by the state agency shows what churches can expect in the near future. It’s a clear example of what Rod Dreher calls the “Law of Merited Impossibility”:
The Law of Merited Impossibility is an epistemological construct governing the paradoxical way overclass opinion makers frame the discourse about the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights. It is best summed up by the phrase, “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”
Before last year’s Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling, the case that made same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states, LGBT activists said that it was absurd to claim that churches would be forced to comply. Today, though, they are shocked we’d ever assume such “anti-discrimination” laws would not apply to churches.
Commenting on the lawsuit, Donna Red Wing, director of One Iowa, the state’s leading LGBT activist group, said:
“We were really surprised this church is suing the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for doing its job,” says One Iowa Director Donna Red Wing. “We've had these protections since 2007, we were a little concerned. Here in Iowa we try and be reasonable and this doesn't feel reasonable at all.”
One Iowa, the state's leading LGBTQ organization, says the law is the law.
“When a church is involved in a bonafide religious activity they can do what they need to do, they can believe whatever they want but when they offer any kind of public accommodation, they can`t break the law,” says Red Wing.
Notice that the state and LGBT groups are the ones that get to determine what is a “bonafide religious activity.” As Lydia McGrew says,
Apparently they think of any “bona fide religious” service as akin to the meetings of the votaries of some gnostic mystery cult, from which outsiders are excluded. This takes the privatization of religion to a whole new level. Barack Obama not-so-subtly changed “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship.” Now apparently the only thing that is allowed is “freedom of top-secret worship.”
As ADF’s Erik Stanley warned TGC readers last year, the threat from non-discrimination laws will materialize in numerous ways over the next few years. But there are proactive steps your church can take. To learn how, download a free copy of the Protect Your Ministry manual.