Federal judge: Iowa churches safe from anti-bias law
DES MOINES, IOWA (BP) -- An Iowa church is dropping its lawsuit against the state and the city of Des Moines after a federal judge issued a ruling protecting the church's religious liberty. The District Court judge has ruled that churches do not count as "public accommodations" under the Iowa Civil Rights Act and are not subject to censorship of their views on marriage and sexuality.
Fort Des Moines Church of Christ filed suit earlier this year seeking protection from nondiscrimination laws in its city and state. Amid growing debate over the use of public restrooms by transgender people, the church wanted to publish clear guidelines that men and women should use the restrooms and showers corresponding with their biological sex. But the church feared repercussions from the state after it read statements from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.
A brochure published by the commission in 2008 implied churches must comply with a 2007 amendment to the Iowa Civil Rights Act that made sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes. The church argued in court the language of the law was too vague, leaving it open to interpretation by courts or the unregulated and unaccountable Iowa Civil Rights Commission.
The commission revised the brochure, saying it did not intend to apply the law to churches.
"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," commission director Kristin Johnson said in a statement released with the revised brochure.
In her Oct. 14 ruling, Judge Stephanie Rose noted that the church had good reason to be concerned: "Plaintiff's fear of prosecution, which led it to self-censor its speech, is objectively reasonable." Rose also affirmed the Iowa Civil Rights Act did not apply to churches. She said, however, reassurances from the city of Des Moines and the state of Iowa that they did not plan to subject churches to censorship made it unnecessary to issue a restraining order to protect the church.
"The ICRA and the Des Moines City ordinances paralleling its provisions were not passed in order to interfere with religious practices -- the clear purpose of the laws is the prevention and elimination of discrimination," Rose wrote. "Additionally, the inclusion of the religious institution exemption signals the lawmakers' desire to avoid impinging on religious freedoms."
Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the church, lauded the ruling and said it would not take the lawsuit further.
"This lawsuit was necessary to ensure that the state won't try to enforce the law against churches, and we're pleased that Iowa churches now have the reassurance and clarity that they need," ADF counsel Christiana Holcomb said.