Iowa church: law requiring public accommodations for gender identity and sexual orientation violates religious protections

Federal judge in Iowa asked to block enforcement actions

  • Photo

DES MOINES — The attorney for a church in Des Moines told a federal judge Wednesday Iowa is the only state attempting to enforce sexual orientation and gender identity public accommodations standards for religious institutions even if they conflict with the house of worship’s beliefs and practices.

“This is unprecedented,” said Steve O’Ban, a lawyer with Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom. He urged U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose to grant injunctive and declaratory relief stopping the potential for government interference with Fort Des Moines Church of Christ’s exercise of its religious freedom.

“This has never happened before,” he said.

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 Iowa’s anti-discrimination law could allow it to “sift through” the church’s religious practices in violation of constitutional protections.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Molly Weber said the church’s “pre-enforcement challenge” lawsuit is a case of “unreasonable fear” over “hypothetical” state action that has not been contemplated regarding the operation of religious institutions.

The state’s attorney argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because the federal court has no jurisdiction given no controversy 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.

“It’s a kitchen sink approach, frankly,” Weber said of the church’s legal challenge.

The legal action was touched off by wording in a commission publication providing guidance for a 2007 law that expanded Iowa’s civil rights act to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the classifications protected from discrimination. A question-and-answer section in the commission publication asked if the law applied to churches and answered by saying: “Sometimes. Iowa law provides that these protections do not apply to religious institutions with respect to any religion-based qualifications when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.

“Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions (e.g. a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public).”

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the commission revised its website to note that places of worship, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, “are generally exempt from the Iowa law’s prohibition of discrimination, unless the place of worship engages in non-religious activities which 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.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Weber conceded the commission language is “awkward” in places but generally shielded bona fide religious purposes and activities, although she said there were facts and circumstances that would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis such as when churches are used as polling places during elections or rent their facilities for functions unrelated to their religious tenets.

O’Ban countered that the commission’s guidelines are vague and subjective, telling the judge “that vagueness has had and continues to have a chilling effect on my client’s First Amendment rights.” While the case dealt solely with the Des Moines church, a sizable number of interested spectators who attended the court hearing as spectators were pastors of churches in other Iowa communities.

“Iowa really is an outlier, your honor,” O’Ban told the federal judge.

Michelle Mackel-Wiederanders, an attorney representing the city of Des Moines — also named in the lawsuit — noted the state commission’s brochure is not a legal advisory opinion and said there is “no concrete actual or imminent threat” of enforcement based upon the wording of a leaflet or complaints from religious entities filed with the city.

“We’re in the land of hypotheticals,” she said.

Rose noted public accommodations issues for churches carry a different connotation when they are used as polling places where members of the public cast votes in government-run elections. She said “an easy fix” to that complication would be for government entities to seek out other locations to conduct the secular balloting.

Rose told the attorneys at the close of Wednesday’s hearing that she would issue on opinion on the church’s request for injunctive relief “as quickly as possible.”

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.