Churches File Nonsense Suit Challenging Iowa’s LGBT Protections

by ZACK FORD –

church of christ des moines

The Fort Des Moines Church of Christ displayed this sign in February of 2012

Iowa’s law protecting LGBT people from discrimination should be overturned, two churches are arguing, because they want to be able to discriminate against transgender people who might come to their services.

The Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, represented by the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), filed a federal lawsuit this week against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission seeking to completely knockdown the LGBT-inclusive Iowa Civil Rights Act. Cornerstone World Outreach, an historically litigious church based in Sioux City, similarly sent a demand letter to the Commission Tuesday afternoon with representation from another anti-LGBT legal organization, the First Liberty Institute.

The ADF suit argues that Fort Des Moines holds religious beliefs that do not recognize the gender identities of transgender people. In response to recent advances in transgender equality, including the federal government’s suit challenging North Carolina’s HB2 and Target reminding customers of its inclusive restroom policy, the church’s leaders have even devised a written policy that dictates that visitors to the church can only use the restrooms that match the “biological sex” they were assigned at birth. They are afraid to post this policy on the church’s website or distribute it in the church’s bulletin, however, because they fear it will bring them in violation of the state’s law.

Updated in 2007 to include the protected categories of sexual orientation and gender identity, the Iowa Civil Rights Act prohibits “unfair or discriminatory practice” in any public accommodation, including publishing statements refusing access to people. It contains an exemption for religious organizations, explaining that the law does not apply to “any bona fide religious institution with respect to any qualifications the institution may impose based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.”

ADF argues that the exemption doesn’t actually apply to Fort Des Moines. This claim hinges not on the wording of the law itself, but on the wording on a brochure the Civil Rights Commission has published about the impact of the protections:

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).

It’s this parenthetical that supports the entire legal argument of the suit. Fort Des Moines asserts that “all of the Church’s services, events, activities, and all other religious programming” are open to the public, and thus the Commission could foreseeably rule against the church for publishing an anti-trans rule. Cornerstone’s demand letter similarly targets the brochure’s guidance as evidence of “the Commission’s express intent to target churches singularly for enforcement.”

While Cornerstone’s demand letter simply calls for a retraction of the brochure’s language, the Fort Des Moines suit asks that the entire Iowa Civil Rights Act — and its statewide protections for the LGBT community — be declared unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Kristin H. Johnson, executive director of the Commission, rejected this interpretation outright.

“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has not made any changes in its interpretation of the law, nor does it intend to ignore the exemption for religious institutions when applicable,” she told ThinkProgress. “The Iowa Civil Rights Commission remains committed to fighting discrimination as provided in Iowa law. Complaints against religious institutions as public accommodations have not been considered by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.”

ADF’s legal hypothetical of Fort Des Moines being found in violation of the law is imagined both in the sense that it has never happened and that it would never happen. Johnson noted that the law “has been consistently enforced, and the exemption consistently applied” since its enactment in 2007.

The lawsuit is part of a burgeoning strategy ADF is deploying to try to overturn LGBT nondiscrimination protections through pre-enforcement challenges before any based on the invented idea that they somehow unfairly target churches and thus shouldn’t apply to any other public accommodation. They recently filed a similar suit seeking to overturn Phoenix’s LGBT protections on behalf of a calligraphy studio that doesn’t want to have to make wedding invitations for same-sex couples because of their religious beliefs — even though they haven’t yet been asked to.

These suits also follow ADF’s efforts earlier this year to advance legislation that discriminates against transgender students in states like Tennessee and South Dakota, while also filing suits challenging protections for transgender students in North Carolina and Illinois.

Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, scoffed at the suit. “Do we understand what is happening?” she said in a statement. “They are suing the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for doing its job.”

 

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress