Church Speech Ban Exposed

Iowa_ChurchDES MOINES, IowaAlliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing an Iowa church filed a brief Monday in federal court that exposes deficiencies in the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s arguments against suspending a law that censors and attempts to control churches. The commission’s application of the law censors the church’s teaching on biblical sexuality and forces the church to open its restrooms and showers to members of the opposite sex under certain conditions that the government dictates.

Last month, ADF attorneys filed a motion to temporarily suspend application of the law while the case moves forward in court and explained that recent changes to a public accommodations brochure the commission produced are insufficient to alleviate the concerns raised in the church’s lawsuit. The commission responded by doubling down on its extraconstitutional claim that it has the power to apply the law to churches and determine whether their activities are religious or not. It specifically analogized churches to for-profit businesses, seeming to miss the obvious constitutional differences between the two.

“Churches should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “It’s not good enough for government officials to say we should simply trust them to tell us what is religious and what isn’t. The law must be clear, and at present, the only thing that’s clear is that the law gives too much power to government bureaucrats who don’t even seem to understand the most basic constitutional principles.”

“In the meantime, the court should issue an injunction that makes certain that this law won’t be enforced against our client while this lawsuit proceeds,” added ADF Senior Counsel Steven O’Ban. “Neither the commission nor any state law has the constitutional authority to dictate how a church uses its facility or what public statements a church can make concerning human sexuality.”

The law at issue, the Iowa Civil Rights Act, bans places of public accommodation from expressing their views on human sexuality if they would “directly or indirectly” make “persons of any particular…gender identity” feel “unwelcome.” The speech ban could be used to gag churches from making any public comments—including from the pulpit—that could be viewed as unwelcome to persons who do not identify with their biological sex because the commission has stated that the law applies to churches during any activity that the commission deems to not have a “bona fide religious purpose.”

Examples the commission previously gave in a brochure are “a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public,” which encompasses most events that churches hold. ADF attorneys explain that a recently revised version of the brochure isn’t much better, as it states that places of worship are only “generally exempt” from the law and that they will be subject to it if “the place of worship engages in non-religious activities which are open to the public.

ADF attorneys representing Fort Des Moines Church of Christ in Des Moines continue to point out that all events held at a church on its property have a bona fide religious purpose, and that the commission has no authority to violate the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion and speech. The Iowa Civil Rights Act also includes a facility use mandate that requires anyone subject to the law to open sensitive areas like locker rooms, showers, and restrooms to persons based on their “gender identity” rather than their biological sex.

As the ADF brief filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, Central Division, explains, the commission’s “overreach is entirely predictable in light of Iowa’s constitutionally flawed definition of public accommodation, which clearly encompasses churches. The Commission has twice tried to inform ‘churches’ and then ‘places of worship’ what activities will bring them under the Act. But in doing so, the Commission only highlights how the Act interferes into the internal affairs of houses of worship, and why a preliminary injunction is absolutely necessary to protect the Church from further chill of its constitutional rights.”

Timm Reid, one of more than 3,000 private attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel on behalf of the church in the case, Fort Des Moines Church of Christ v. Jackson.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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  • retiredday

    It’s called the free exercise of religion. Don’t look now but they’re trying real hard all over this country to obliterate our God-given, Constitutionally guaranteed, inalienable rights. California’s Senate Bill 1146 attacks the same religious freedom issue in post secondary, private (mainly Christian) schools. Outrageous!

    • Thisoldspouse

      It shocks me that Iowa, a mid-western state, has been so leftist in recent decades, even having an unanimous supreme court redefine marriage wholesale. What gives?

      I saw a documentary on Iowa’s political climate recently which seemed to give some insight. Iowa was hit hard during the Great Depression of the 30’s, and the anti-Hoover/anti-Republican/anti-bank mentality was firmly ensconced in that populace for generations, ensuring democratic dominance, and, by extension, leftist control. There is still much residual anti-Republican sentiment, even after the Democratic party went over the leftist cliff. Ignorance is bliss.

  • A “church” (or any 501c3) entity is a legal designation.

    Are we saying that any entity can declare itself a “church” based on its own criteria and then be awarded the designated benefits for doing so?

    “ADF attorneys representing Fort Des Moines Church of Christ in Des Moines continue to point out that all events held at a church on its property have a bona fide religious purpose”

    Not true. I’m aware of many churches (liberal and conservative) who rent out their facilities for groups that have nothing to do with religion: civic/political groups, music rehearsals, addiction recovery programs, etc. Sometime there’s a fee, sometimes not, but many of these groups have no particular religious affiliation.

    • Nonprofit tax status was not associated with churches until Senator Lyndon Johnson’s move in 1954 to silence his political enemies who were in nonprofit organizations, and churches got swept up in his move to muzzle his critics. Since the founding era, it has been recognized that the power to tax is the power to control and destroy, which means state control over a church–something our nation recognized was unacceptable until 1954.

      What’s more, the First Amendment protects religious liberty. It is not government’s responsibility or right to tell churches or pastors what they can and cannot do.

      I don’t know what nominally serious or apostate churches may do, but I don’t know of any churches that rent out their facilities for purposes that would not be in harmony with their Christian values.

    • Thisoldspouse

      Perhaps the entire system of “designations” was corrupt from the get-go, and needs to be abandoned in the interest of constitutional freedom. Of course, this would simultaneously abolish the income tax, and most property taxes, but that is the price of freedom.

  • temporary guest

    Can’t help but wonder how does this affect what goes on in mosques?

    Best guess: We wouldn’t want to offend Muslims in this country.