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Federal judge won't dismiss Iowa church's lawsuit

No permanent injunction granted either

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DES MOINES — A federal judge has denied a request from Iowa officials to dismiss a church’s lawsuit contending a state commission has misconstrued a law regarding sexual orientation and gender identity public accommodations standards as giving it the power to censor and control churches.

However, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose also declined a request by attorneys representing the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ that she grant a preliminary injunction against state enforcement action while the lawsuit proceeds through the judicial process.

Steve O’Ban, a lawyer with Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said the judge’s ruling on Friday provided “much-needed” reassurance and clarification to Iowa churches in the wake of two “vague” brochures produced by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission regarding how the state’s civil rights act applies to churches.

The church and its advocates are challenging an Iowa Civil Rights Commission position on gender identity protections they regard as intrusive, saying they fear the panel’s subjective interpretation of state’s anti-discrimination law could allow it to “sift through” the church’s religious practices in violation of constitutional protections.

O’Ban said the commission’s interpretation and application of Iowa law could censor church statements on biblical sexuality in certain contexts and force churches to open their restrooms to members of the opposite sex under conditions that the government dictates. The Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, also has showers, which the law affects, he added.

However, attorneys from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and the city of Des Moines, argued at an August hearing that the church’s “pre-enforcement challenge” lawsuit was a case of “unreasonable fear” over “hypothetical” state action that has not been contemplated regarding the operation of religious institutions.

They argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the federal court had no jurisdiction given that no controversy currently exists over the application or enforcement of Iowa’s public accommodation law under the state’s Civil Rights Act, there is no claim on which relief can be granted and the church failed to exhaust its administration remedies by bringing the issue before the commission rather than taking the issue straight to court.

In her 44-page ruling, Rose cited the church’s fear of enforcement consequences poses a potential chilling effect on its religious freedom.

“The court concludes the chilling of plaintiff’s speech constitutes an injury in fact for the purposes of standing,” according to the court document. “Plaintiff satisfies the requirement that its injury is fairly traceable to challenged actions of the defendants. The court therefore cannot find support for dismissal of plaintiff’s suit based on these arguments.”

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 public comments 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.” ADF attorneys representing the Des Moines church argued 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.

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