A federal judge has denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by an Iowa church against the Civil Rights Commission for allegedly interpreting a state law wrongly and putting it at risk of prosecution.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose agreed that the church’s fear of prosecution puts a “chilling” effect on its religious freedom.
The court ruling said the church’s policy is “plainly drafted to serve a religious purpose” and added that state officials’ claims that the law does not cover churches are not enough to stop its enforcement, The Gazette reported.
However, the judge also denied the church’s motion for preliminary injunction against enforcement of the state law while the case proceeds.
The Fort Des Moines Church of Christ filed a lawsuit against the commission over the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which prohibits people from saying anything that could “directly or indirectly” make a person of any gender identity feel “unwelcome” in places of public accommodation.
According to the commission, places of worship are considered as places of public accommodation, and the law could apply to church activities that do not have a “bonafide religious purpose” as determined by the commission.
This means the state law could effectively stifle the church’s Biblical teachings on gender and sexuality.
In addition, the Civil Rights Act could also forcibly open the church’s restrooms to members of the opposite sex, as the law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Illegal discrimination,” defined by the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity guide published by the commission, refers to the “refusal or denial of any accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Although the brochure says churches are “generally exempt” from this law against discrimination, it says the law can apply for “non-religious activities” that are open to the public.
“The government acts outside of its authority when it attempts to control churches,” Steve O’Ban, an attorney of the church and senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said. “Neither the commission nor any state law has the constitutional authority to dictate how any church uses its facility or what public statements a church can make concerning sexuality.”
O’Ban also said the commission’s interpretation of the Civil Rights Act could result in censorship of the church’s teachings on sexuality as defined by the Bible.
Christiana Holcomb of Alliance Defending Freedom emphasized that churches should have the freedom to conduct their activities as dictated by their beliefs.
“Churches should be free to talk about their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment,” she said.