Iowa commission revises controversial civil rights law, but lawsuit stays

The Iowa State House chamber on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House chamber on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Revisions made Friday to a state Civil Rights Commission publication clarifying that religious activities at churches are exempt from sexual orientation and gender identity public accommodation guidelines will not head off a federal lawsuit challenging Iowa’s “bad law,” according to attorneys.

Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, said the commission made a “minor revision” to its public accommodations provider’s guide to Iowa law that “failed to alleviate the concerns regarding a vague state law at issue” in the lawsuit her organization filed Monday on behalf of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ.

Earlier Friday, commission executive director Kristin Johnson issued a news release indicating revisions had been made to a publication that had not been updated since 2008, clarifying “that religious activities by a church are exempt from the Iowa Civil Rights Act.”

“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has never considered a complaint against a church or other place of worship on this issue,” Johnson said in a statement. “This statute was amended to add these protected classes (sexual orientation and gender identity) in 2007 and has been in effect since then.

“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has not done anything to suggest it would be enforcing these laws against ministers in the pulpit, and there has been no new publication or statement from the (commission) raising the issue,” she added. “The commission regrets the confusion caused by the previous publication.”

The Alliance attorneys took issue with previous wording in a question-and-answer section in a commission publication indicating that Iowa’s law “sometimes” applied to churches in situations not related to “a bona fide religious purpose,” charging the commission’s position on gender identity protections amounted to unprecedented government intrusion into religious freedom.

In response, they filed a pre-emptive federal lawsuit challenging the Iowa commission’s interpretation of a law they contend could “censor a church’s teaching on biblical sexuality” and force it to open its restrooms and showers to members of the opposite gender.


The revised commission publication answers “no” to questions of whether Iowa’s law prohibits gender-segregated restrooms or gender-segregated locker rooms and living facilities.

“It is still legal in Iowa for businesses to maintain gender-segregated restrooms. The new law does require, however, that individuals are permitted to access those restrooms in accordance with their gender identity, rather than their assigned sex at birth,” according to the commission.

Also, the publication says “Iowa law does not prohibit places of public accommodation from maintaining separate facilities for the different sexes, so long as they are comparable. The new law does require, however, that individuals are permitted to access those facilities in accordance with their gender identity, rather than their assigned sex at birth, without being harassed or questioned.”

The commission revision notes that places of worship, such as churches, synagogues and 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.”

Holcomb issued a statement Friday indicating the revisions have not changed the position of her non-profit legal organization.

“Cosmetic changes to the alarming language in one brochure won’t fix the unconstitutionality of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Churches should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment,” she said.

“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission had no constitutional basis for including explicit threats against houses of worship in any of its materials. While the commission was right to remove some of the most disturbing language in its brochure, 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,” Holcomb added.

“No state or local law should threaten free speech and the free exercise of religion as protected by the First Amendment. Because the Iowa law does that, ADF will continue to challenge the law to bring certainty to Iowa churches,” she said.

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