Iowa Commission Revises Gender Identity Brochure, but Church’s Lawsuit Continues

By Dustin Siggins Published on July 9, 2016

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission (CRC) has changed controversial language in a brochure about gender identity, but a legal group suing members of the commission says the commission is still trying to tell churches what they can and cannot do.

“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,” said Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb in a statement Friday.

According to Holcomb, “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.”

At issue is a CRC brochure that explained what a church is permitted, and not permitted, to do when it comes to issues of gender identity. ADF sued on behalf of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ because the original brochure declared:

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.

The original brochure noted that what would not qualify for an exemption would include “a child care facility operated at a church” and “a church service open to the public.”

The brochure’s new language says:

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.

In a statement released with the new brochure, CRC Executive Director Kristin Johnson said that “the Commission regrets the confusion caused by the previous publication,” which was added “in 2007 and has been in effect since then.”

“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has never considered a complaint against a church or other place of worship on this issue,” said Johnson, echoing comments made to ThinkProgress earlier this week. “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.”

Holcomb called the brochure changes “cosmetic,” and said, “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.”

Another legal group was more pleased, however. First Liberty Institute Counsel and Chief of Staff Chelsey Youman, who represented the church Cornerstone World Outreach, said in a statement after the changes were announced, “We’re taking the state at its word that it will not encroach on the church in any way. 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 under the Constitution.”

ADF is suing to have the challenged provisions declared unconstitutional and for an injunction for Fort Des Moines  Church of Christ. First Liberty had filed a demand letter for clarification that Cornerstone would receive an exemption and a promise to be left alone by the Commission.

Johnson told The Stream she has been the Civil Rights Commission Director since May of 2015. “We have lots and lots of publications on our website,” she said. “Nobody had reviewed this since 2008, and nobody ever brought it to our attention.”

“Instead of being sued, if somebody had asked the question,” said Johnson.

ADF’s lawsuit was criticized by ThinkProgress LGBT Editor Zack Ford in an e-mail to The Stream. According to Ford, who was commenting on ADF’s reaction to the original brochure:

It’s absurd to believe that any governmental body could actually dictate what a church can preach to its congregation. 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. ADF’s suit may originate from a church, but it’s actually just a ruse to gut LGBT protections across the entire state. It’s an attempt to make it easier to discriminate against LGBT people based on an invented fear that has no legitimacy.

Holcomb disagreed. “The critics you cite apparently did not read the entire complaint,” she told The Stream via email. “Fort Des Moines’ lawsuit clearly requests two narrow forms of relief. We ask the court, first, to stop the commission from trying to control the Church’s speech and house of worship, and second, to declare portions of the law unconstitutional in the context of church facilities. The remainder of the Act is unchallenged.”

Ford had also stated in his ThinkProgress analysis 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.” But both ADF and First Liberty Institute said they acted out of concern that the Commission’s practices could change under current law.

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