- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Two churches are fighting back against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission after the agency issued an interpretation of state law that could bar churches from expressing biblical views on sexuality and gender identity — even from the Sunday pulpit.

Fort Des Moines Church of Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the commission on Monday, arguing that the agency’s interpretation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act violates the First Amendment.

Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the church, said it is difficult to “imagine a more obvious unconstitutional invasion of the state into the internal affairs of the church” than what the Civil Rights Commission is proposing.

“Churches should be free to teach their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without being threatened by the government,” Ms. Holcomb said in a statement. “That is a foundational First Amendment principle.”

The lawsuit came in response to an explanatory brochure titled “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity — A Public Accommodations Provider’s Guide to Iowa Law,” released by the Civil Rights Commission. It says churches are public accommodations and therefore generally subject to the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

Under a section header titled “Does this law apply to churches?” the brochure says: “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,” the brochure continues, adding that church activities such as “a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public” are not examples of “bona fide religious purpose[s].”

A spokesperson for the commission did not respond to questions about who decides what a “bona fide religious purpose” is and what church activities — if not a “church service open to the public” — would qualify as “bona fide religious purpose[s].”

The brochure also defines discrimination as, among other things, “publicizing that the patronage of persons of any particular sexual orientation or gender identity is unwelcome, objectionable, not acceptable, or not solicited.”

The lawsuit says the Civil Rights Commission’s interpretation could force churches to permit access to sex-segregated facilities on the basis of gender identity. Refusing to call a transgender person by the pronoun corresponding with their gender identity could constitute illicit “harassment.”

Donna Red Wing, executive director of pro-LGBT rights One Iowa, said the lawsuit has no merit.

“Do we understand what is happening? They are suing the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for doing its job,” Ms. Red Wing said in a statement.

“As a church, they can believe whatever they want,” she continued. “In their bona fide religious activities, they are exempt. They cannot, however, break the law when providing public accommodation.”

Cornerstone World Outreach Church in Sioux City, Iowa, also took issue with the commission’s interpretation of the state law.

First Liberty Institute, which represents the church, sent a letter to the Civil Rights Commission on Tuesday demanding a retraction of the interpretation and threatening legal action.

“This is a clear case of the state violating the sanctity of the church,” said Chelsey Youman, chief of staff and counsel at First Liberty. “It should send chills down the spine of every congregation in Iowa.”

“The state of Iowa claims it has the power to regulate what churches can teach about human sexuality and how they operate their facilities,” she said. “The government has absolutely no authority to force a church to violate its religious beliefs. This is a massive violation of the First Amendment.”

John C. Eastman, director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, said the Civil Rights Commission’s interpretation is indicative of the direction in which the gay rights movement is headed.

“So much for the old ‘live and let live’ line,” Mr. Eastman said. “This is now becoming manifestly clear, what some of us saw a decade ago, that this is going to be a dramatic effort to force compliance at great risk to religious liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of association, religious liberty in the public square, but also, ultimately, religious liberty in the pulpit itself.”

An expansive and nonhistorical view of what constitutes a “public accommodation” has long threatened to curtail First Amendment rights,” he said.

“The idea of public accommodation has now morphed into anything you do outside of your own home, and that expansion of the idea of public accommodation has actually destroyed freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of exercise of religion,” he said.

Commission spokeswoman Kristin H. Johnson said the agency “has not made any changes in its interpretation of the law, nor does it intend to ignore the exemption for religious institutions when applicable.”

But Mr. Eastman said the Iowa Civil Rights Commission is not the only unelected agency radically reinterpreting legislative intent. He pointed to the U.S. Department of Justice, which earlier this year reinterpreted Title IX to bar discrimination in education on the basis of “gender identity,” even though the statute only mentions “sex.”

“Despite trying to get sexual orientation and gender identity language added to Title IX and Title VII and Title II for decades, the administration just did it with a magic wand and the wave of its hand,” Mr. Eastman said. “Despite their inability to get amnesty and the Dream Act through, they just did it with the wave of their hand.

“You can see the utter [contempt] for the normal democratic, legislative processes for advancing their agenda,” he said. “They’re just imposing stuff by diktat.”

The Iowa lawsuit also comes after city officials in Houston last year issued subpoenas to five pastors calling for their sermons and other communications related to the campaign against the pro-LGBT Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Voters overwhelmingly repealed the ordinance in a November ballot measure.

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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