DES MOINES, Iowa, July 13, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — The Iowa Civil Rights Commission amended its “Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Public Accommodations” brochure on Friday after churches in the state sued, contending the commission was trying mandate transgender restroom usage in churches and prohibit preaching on Biblical sexuality.
The pamphlet originally stated that Iowa’s anti-discrimination law “sometimes” applies to churches, such as occasions when the facility was not being used for a “bona fide religious purpose,” which is not defined. It further stated that instances when church services are open to the public are not a “bona fide religious purpose.”
This interpretation of Iowa anti-discrimination law amounts to a de facto ban on free speech, the lawsuits contend, outlawing pastors from preaching about sexual morality.
According to Iowa law, it is illegal to discriminate against transgender individuals for, among other things, indicating in any manner that they are “unwelcome, objectionable, not acceptable, or not solicited,” since Iowa Code Chapter 216 was expanded in 2007 to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes.
The law also requires places of public accommodation, which includes — by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s interpretation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act in its “Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Public Accommodations” brochure — churches that open their services to the public, to allow transgender use of restrooms and locker rooms.
“Illegal Harassment,” further according to the brochure, includes among other things “intentional use of names and pronouns inconsistent with a person’s presented gender.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sued July 4 on behalf of The Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, arguing, “The Act’s and the (accompanying Des Moines) City Code’s imposition of sanctions on public statements that may be viewed as unwelcome in violation of the speech ban, places a direct and substantial burden on the Church’s right of Free Speech, including the Church’s freedom to teach its religious beliefs regarding God’s design for human sexuality and to publicly distribute and implement its restroom and shower use policy.”
ADF said as well that the statutes were unconstitutional and use terms that are vague or have no settled legal meaning. ADF asked the court to enjoin the commission, the City of Des Moines and the Iowa Attorney General from applying either code “to prohibit or chill the Church’s statements and facility use policy regarding its religious beliefs about sex,” and also declare that the statutes violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City sued the following day represented by First Liberty Institute, requesting the commission amend its policy to clarify that it would not apply Iowa Code 216 against churches, and publicly acknowledge that because Cornerstone World Outreach is a church, it would be exempt from enforcement action related to the code.
Christian advocates have criticized the brochure.
“It doesn't take a law degree to see how the application of this law can be a threat to religious liberty,” Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins said in a statement. “I don't know about you, but most church services I have attended were open to the public.”
“Did the Last Supper qualify as a religious event?” Perkins asked. “What about the feeding of the five thousand?”
“It is quite evident that the Iowa Civil Rights Commission is out of control,” local blogger, speaker and interim pastor Shane Vanderhart wrote in Caffeinated Thoughts.
“So basically they’re saying any time the church holds an activity that according to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission does not have a “bona fide religious purpose” then a transgendered person who is a biological male must be allowed to use the women’s restroom and vice versa.”
“Apparently, it would be considered “harassment” if a pastor or teacher in the church used the wrong pronouns,” Vanderhart continued. “They write ‘intentional use of names and pronouns inconsistent with a person’s presented gender’ is harassment. Really? This is illegal?”
The Iowa Civil Rights Commission announced Friday that it amended its “Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Public Accommodations ” brochure, which now states that “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 that 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.”
The commission’s executive director stated the revision replaces what had been in place since 2007 and clarifies that churches’ religious activities “are exempt from the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” and further that the commission has not indicated it would be going after pastors.
“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has never considered a complaint against a church or other place of worship on this issue,” said Kristin Johnson, executive director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. “This statute was amended to add these protected classes (sexual orientation and gender identity) in 2007 and has been in effect since then. 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.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad commended the pamphlet revision, Christian Post reports, and suggested the commission’s objective is not to infringe upon religious liberty. “I think they wanted to clarify the law and make it clear that they have no intention of going after people for exercising their freedom of religion.”
Despite the governor’s reaction, reservations persist.
First Liberty was cautious in its response.
“We’re taking the state at its word that it will not encroach on the church in any way,” Chelsey Youman, chief of staff & counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. “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 and free speech under the Constitution.”
“I accept the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s public apology, with clear reservations,” Cornerstone Pastor Cary Gordon said. “We will continue to monitor their activities and stand ready to defend all churches at any time.”
“What remains is still vague and alarming,” Perkins said. “What constitutes ‘non-religious activities,’ and who decides what those are?”
ADF rejected the commission’s remedy on the whole, saying the modified brochure “doesn’t change bad law,” and that its suit would continue.
“Cosmetic changes to the alarming language in one brochure won’t fix the unconstitutionality of the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb said. “Churches should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment.
“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission had no constitutional basis for including explicit threats against houses of worship in any of its materials.”
Although the commission removed some of “the most disturbing language” in its brochure, Holcomb continued, the change doesn’t correct the inherent problem with the Civil Rights Act that forms the basis of ADF’s lawsuit, which is “the act gives the 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.”
“No state or local law should threaten free speech and the free exercise of religion as protected by the First Amendment,” Holcomb said. “Because the Iowa law does that, ADF will continue to challenge the law to bring certainty to Iowa churches.”
The brochure was also cited last year in a National Review piece warning of potential devastating financial losses for churches that refuse to perform same-sex “marriages” after the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision redefining marriage because insurance companies would now decline to cover them.
The brochure’s controversial content has also been seen by Christians as prime example of current codified attacks on religious freedom, demonstrating how the agenda is not limited to Christians declining to bake cakes, produce floral arrangements, photograph or host so-called same-sex “weddings,” but that it has included pastors all along.