Iowa churches counter gender identity law

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP) -- Two Iowa churches say the Iowa Civil Rights Commission's interpretation of a state civil rights law could force them to open restrooms to members of the opposite sex and inhibit their ability to teach biblical truth about gender.

One of the churches, Fort Des Moines Church of Christ in Des Moines, filed a lawsuit in federal court July 4. The other, Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City, sent a demand letter to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission July 5 asking the Commission to amend its policy regarding churches and gender identity discrimination.

At issue is an undated brochure published by the Commission, which states churches must "sometimes" permit locker room and restroom access based on self-perceived gender identity rather than biological sex.

The brochure, titled "Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity," explains, "Iowa law provides that these [anti-discrimination] 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)."

The brochure lists among examples of illegal harassment "verbal ... or written conduct" and states that organizations must not "directly or indirectly" make anyone feel "unwelcome" because of their sexual orientation or gender identity -- phrases the churches allege could be used to censor sermons or other religious speech.

Fort Des Moines Church of Christ's lawsuit, filed by the conservative legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, asks a federal court to declare unconstitutional the Iowa statue the brochure purports to interpret and a nearly identical portion of the Des Moines City Code. The suit claims the "Commission's interpretation" of the state law "is given weight by Iowa courts." Both the state and city laws violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments, according to the lawsuit.

Because all Fort Des Moines activities are open to the public, the brochure implies open restroom access must always be provided, the lawsuit notes.

ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb said, "Churches have always been protected from government intrusion, and they still are.

"They have a firmly established freedom to teach their beliefs and set internal policies that reflect their biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality," she said in a news release. "One can hardly imagine a more obvious unconstitutional invasion of the state into the internal affairs of the church."

Cornerstone's demand letter, filed by First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom, threatens to "pursue all available legal options" if the Commission does not respond favorably by Aug. 5. In addition to violating the First Amendment, the Commission has violated the Iowa Constitution's guarantee of religious liberty, the letter states.

Chelsey Youman, chief of staff & counsel for First Liberty, formerly Liberty Institute, noted, "This is a clear case of the state violating the sanctity of the church. It should send chills down the spine of every congregation in Iowa.

"The State of Iowa claims it has the power to regulate what churches can teach about human sexuality and how they operate their facilities," said Youman, according to the group's website. "The government has absolutely no authority to force a church to violate its religious beliefs. This is a massive violation of the First Amendment."

In 2007, the Iowa Legislature prohibited discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, The Des Moines Register reported. Iowa Civil Rights Commission executive director Kristin Johnson responded to the two churches by stating Iowa officials consistently have enforced the law.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP).
Download Story