Iowa Civil Rights Commission May Punish Pastors Who Preach Sermons on Sexuality

fdmcocIt may now be against the law for Iowa pastors to teach that God created mankind – male and female – in His own image (Genesis 1).

The religious liberty organization Alliance Defending Freedom, on behalf of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, launched a pre-enforcement challenge to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s new interpretation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, passed in 2007.

Under this new interpretation, the state may prohibit churches from making “persons of any particular sexual orientation or gender identity” feel “unwelcome, objectionable, [or] not acceptable,” according to a brochure published by the Iowa State Civil Rights Commission.

Lawyers representing the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ worry that this broad interpretation of the Civil Rights Act could be used to silence preachers teaching from the pulpit about biblical sexuality. Comments from church officials that make a gay or transgender person feel ‘uncomfortable’ during services or any other event open to the public may put the church in violation of the law.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has also determined that places of public accommodation — now including churches, which are open to the public — must allow individuals to use whatever locker room, shower, or bathroom is consistent with their gender identity, regardless of their biological sex.

First Liberty Institute, another religious liberty organization, sent a letter to the Civil Rights Commission on behalf of Cornerstone World Outreach, a church in Sioux City. The letter asks the Commission to provide the church with an exemption by August 4. First Liberty Institute is willing to pursue “all available legal options” if the church is not granted the exemption.

“The state claims it has the power to regulate what the church even teaches – what they are allowed to say from the pulpit – in addition to how they operate regarding matters of gender and sexuality,” Chelsey Youman, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, said. “If the church has a doctrine or theology that is at odds with the state and they speak out about that – they can have the full weight of the law brought down against them.”

The most worrisome development is the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s decision to subject churches to public accommodation requirements. Though churches are exempt from requirements of the Iowa Civil Rights Act in their “bona fide religious activities,” the Commission has decided that any service or activity open to the public is a public accommodation that is not exempt from civil rights law.

Our founding fathers warned us about the danger of tyranny when government begins to meddle in the affairs, beliefs, and practices of churches. In the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote,

“That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.”

Churches in Washington state should pay attention to these developments in Iowa. Religious organizations are currently exempted from Washington’s non-discrimination law, though what qualifies an organization as “religious” is murky. If Washington were to follow Iowa’s lead in defining church services as public accommodations, the religious organization exemption may no longer protect a significant portion of church activities.

If pastors don’t stand up now, they may soon have to break the law in order to preach the Word.

This post was originally written for the Family Policy Institute of Washington: http://www.fpiw.org/blog/2016/07/05/iowa-civil-rights-commission-bans-pastors-from-preaching-sermons-on-sexuality/.

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Update: After this article was published, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission issued a “clarification” that churches are “generally exempt” from the law. Alliance Defending Freedom and Fort Des Moines Church of Christ are proceeding with their lawsuit, stating that the agency’s clarification amounts to “cosmetic changes.”

In her statement, Christina Holcomb, an attorney with ADF, said, “The change in the brochure doesn’t fix the inherent problem with the Civil Rights Act that forms the basis of the lawsuit—that the act gives the commission 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.”

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