A Glaring Commission in Iowa

Barb Wire

Did the Last Supper qualify as a religious event? What about the feeding of the five thousand? From Genesis to Revelation some of the most significant events of scripture happened not in a sanctuary but rather around a supper table. Following that example today would be problematic for Christians in Iowa where a government commission is now deciding what church activities qualify as “religious” and which ones don’t, placing those activities under the power of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC).

In 2007, Iowa’s Civil Rights Act was amended to include sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as protected classes. The law gives broad powers of enforcement to the ICRC, which quietly released a brochure in 2008 offering guidance on how the SOGI aspects of the law would be treated. It loosely covers issues like bathroom and locker room policies, stating that individuals were permitted to use restrooms or locker rooms, “…in accordance with their gender identity, rather than their assigned sex at birth, without being harassed or questioned.” Another section of the brochure dealt with the application of the law to churches:

Does this law apply to churches?

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). [ Emphasis added]

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It doesn’t take a law degree to see how the application of this law can be a threat to religious liberty. I don’t know about you, but most church services I have attended were open to the public. A church that closes its doors to the public is quickly on its way to closing its doors permanently – and whether or not that’s the intent of the Iowa law, that would be the effect if the law was enforced. Churches which do not comply would be subject to damages, potentially forcing them to close their doors if they continually refused to accede to the state’s demands over biblical truth. What constitutes a “bona fide religious purpose?” That will apparently be decided at the discretion of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

To date, the law has not been enforced against a church, but our friends at Alliance Defending Freedom weren’t about to sit around and wait for it to happen. Last week ADFlaunched a pre-emptive lawsuit on behalf of an Iowa church against the SOGI facility-use provisions. Another Iowa church sent a demand letter through First Liberty Institute, urging the commission to promise not to enforce the law against churches.

As this dangerous policy started gaining attention, the ICRC revised the brochure’s section on churches. The updated brochure now reads like this:

Places of Worship

Places of worship (e.g. churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) 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.

The language has been slightly modified to remove “church services open to the public” as being subject to the regulation, but what remains is still vague and alarming. What constitutes “non-religious activities,” and who decides what those are? What about a church softball league? What about churches that allow the use of their auditoriums for local high-school graduation ceremonies? What about the church that hosts a barbeque cook-off for the community on its grounds? Though the church may see the activity as an outreach to the community, the ICRC has the power to determine whether or not the activity is religious or not. Thankfully, ADF is forging ahead with its preemptive lawsuit, saying that, “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.”

This is not religious freedom, and if laws like this are allowed to stand in places like Iowa, then it’s only a matter of time before Americans everywhere are going to have government bureaucracies telling them what they can and can’t do within their churches. Iowans need to know that the ICRC is a big problem, but even worse are the legislators who made this legislative change to begin with. Those changes should be repealed to fully protect religious freedom.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Tony Perkins
Tony Perkins is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. He is a former member of the Louisiana legislature where he served for eight years, and he is recognized as a legislative pioneer for authoring measures like the nation’s first Covenant Marriage law. (Via FRC’s Washington Update. Tony Perkins’ Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.)

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