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Court Protects Iowa Churches from Government Censorship and Control

Written by Joe Carter on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Joe Carter

The Story: A federal judge issued a ruling protecting an Iowa church against a law that had threatened to censor the church’s teaching on biblical sexuality and would have forced the church to open its restrooms and showers to members of the opposite sex.

The Background: In July TGC reported on how the Iowa Civil Rights Commission was interpreting the section of the Iowa Civil Rights Act pertaining to public accommodations in a way that would have forced churches to allow individuals access to church restrooms, shower facilities, and changing rooms based on his or her gender identity, irrespective of biological sex.

The law prohibits any public facility from denying access to “accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges” to any person based on numerous factors, including gender identity. This means that public facilities in Iowa must allow people who identify as transgender to use showers and restrooms of their choosing.

The law states that it shall not apply to “any bona fide religious institution with respect to any qualifications the institution may impose based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.” But a pamphlet issued by the Commission—“A Public Accommodations Provider’s Guide to Iowa Law”—claimed that the law “sometimes” applies to churches. 

On behalf of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a “pre-enforcement challenge,” a type of lawsuit that allows citizens to challenge a law before the government enforces it against them. 

This week a federal judge ruled that churches do not count as “public accommodations” under this law and thus cannot be compelled to comply. While Judge Stephanie Rose did not agree with every point of the plaintiff’s side, she did concede that, “Plaintiff’s fear of prosecution, which led it to self-censor its speech, is objectively reasonable.” However, the judge also noted that an injunction was not necessary since the “inclusion of the religious institution exemption signals the lawmakers' desire to avoid impinging on religious freedoms.”

ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb said they would not be pursuing further action. “This lawsuit was necessary to ensure that the state won’t try to enforce the law against churches,” said Holcomb, “and we’re pleased that Iowa churches now have the reassurance and clarity that they need.”

What It Means:  “The Iowa commission’s guidance was vague and empowered government bureaucrats far beyond what the constitution allows,” says ADF Senior Counsel Steve O’Ban. “The court cut off this unconstitutional power grab by clarifying that the law does not apply to churches and reassured Iowa churches that they are free from improper state interference.”

Josh Wester of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission adds,

This represents a tremendous win for religious freedom. The ruling only further affirms that churches and houses of worship are protected from “government censorship and control.” And as a result, churches will continue to operate according to their beliefs without fear of government sanction or reprisal—the importance of which can hardly be overstated.

This win is a cause for celebration. But we should not become complacent. Last year ADF’s Erik Stanley warned TGC readers that the threat from non-discrimination laws like the one in Iowa will materialize in numerous ways over the next few years. But there are proactive steps your church can take now. To learn how, download a free copy of the Protect Your Ministry manual.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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