Iowa Civil Rights Commission Urges Churches to Trust it Won’t Target Their Sermons, Religious Practices

But two church's attorneys told The Stream they're not waiting to find out if the Commission will hold to the reassurances.

By Dustin Siggins Published on July 7, 2016

Attorneys for two Iowa churches say they are not reassured by the head of the state’s Civil Rights Commission (CRC) who stated that they won’t be targeted for holding traditional views on marriage. On Tuesday, CRC Executive Director Kristin Johnson told ThinkProgress that “The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has not made any changes in its interpretation of the law, nor does it intend to ignore the exemption for religious institutions when applicable.”

According to Johnson, “The Iowa Civil Rights Commission remains committed to fighting discrimination as provided in Iowa law. Complaints against religious institutions as public accommodations have not been considered by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.”

The CRC Against the Churches

Johnson’s comments came hours after the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and First Liberty Institute (FLI) filed complaints  on behalf of churches opposed to a CRC brochure that says churches must allow a person to use the restroom of his or her self-identified gender. The brochure also includes as possible “illegal harassment” the “intentional use of names and pronouns inconsistent with a person’s presented gender” and “repeated remarks of a demeaning nature.”

According to the brochure, churches are only partially exempt from these regulations. One of the brochure’s subheadings asks, “Does This Law Apply to Churches?” The brochure, which is based on the commission’s rules, says the answer 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.

What doesn’t qualify for an exemption for a “bona fide religious purpose”? The brochure’s examples include “a child care facility operated at a church” and “a church service open to the public.”

It is the second that most concerned Fort Des Moines Church of Christ. In its lawsuit filed with the help of ADF, the church says it is concerned that since , its traditional views on sexuality could be targeted by the state because — not almost every church in America — all of its services are open to the public.

ADF attorney Christina Holcomb told The Stream that “the Commission has not communicated directly with ADF,” but that Johnson’s statement to Think Progress shows why the lawsuit is needed. “The law is vague, and the Commission — the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the law — has interpreted the law to apply to churches. We’ve seen a lot of double-speak from the Commission, but nothing that rescinds its publication or disavows enforcing this law against churches.”

The ADF lawsuit seeks to have the law declared unconstitutional and for an injunction to be placed against any application of the Commission’s gender identity rules against its client. “The Commission clearly believes it has the authority to control how a church communicates and uses its house of worship. This unprecedented government overreach must be stopped,” said Holcomb. While Church of Christ has not faced pressure from the Commission, “no one has to wait for punishment or fines before challenging an unconstitutional law.”

An Invented or a Real Fear?

Think Progress LGBT Editor Zack Ford, who interviewed Johnson, wrote that “ADF’s legal hypothetical of Fort Des Moines being found in violation of the law is imagined both in the sense that it has never happened and that it would never happen. Johnson noted that the law ‘has been consistently enforced, and the exemption consistently applied’ since its enactment in 2007.”

In e-mailed comments to The Stream, Ford said ADF’s concerns are “based on an invented fear that has no legitimacy.” “It’s absurd to believe that any governmental body could actually dictate what a church can preach to its congregation,” he continued. “Not only would the First Amendment prohibit it, the Iowa Civil Rights Act clearly does too. If a church service is not a ‘bona fide religious purpose,’ I don’t know what is.”

But Cornerstone World Outreach has the same concern as Church of Christ. Chelsey Youman, First Liberty Institute’s chief counsel, told The Stream that the commission likewise had not responded to their demand letter on behalf of Cornerstone. The letter seeks public reassurance that the Commission would not enforce gender identity rules against Cornerstone and a specific exemption by August 4.

Responding to Johnson’s statement to Think Progress, Youman said: “If she means the Commission is abandoning what it said in the brochure and will never enforce the laws against a religious institution, then it is a positive statement.” Youman pointed to the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOc, in which the Court ruled 9-0 that religious groups can hire and fire ministers and certain other employees without government interference, under a “ministerial exception” to certain laws.

“Prosecuting an actual church is a violation of the church autonomy doctrine that every Justice on the Supreme Court agreed provides special protections to churches and religious institutions,” said Youman. “We sent a demand letter precisely to determine whether the Commission was serious about its threat against churches or rather miscommunicated in its brochure. We find it difficult to believe the Commission would violate a recent unanimous Supreme Court precedent.”


Note: For more on the concerns of Cornerstone World Outreach’s pastor, click here.

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