The Iowa Civl Rights Act forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Churches have an exemption for “a bona fide religious purpose.” But the Iowa Civil Rights Commission has ruled that if a church service “is open to the public,” it is a “public accommodation” that may not discriminate.
This would mean a congregation must allow only members to attend worship services, excluding visitors and non-members.
UPDATE: The commission is now clarifying that it didn’t have in mind “worship services,” just services offered by the church, in the sense of child care, food pantries, etc.
A pair of Iowa churches are challenging a new interpretation of their state’s civil rights act, which prohibits Christians from making gay or transgender people feel unwelcome and from restricting church bathroom use to a person’s biological gender.
A 2007 amendment to the Iowa Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, among other factors.
Religious institutions are exempt, but only when they are doing something “related to a bona fide religious purpose.” The language is vague, and no churches have been disciplined for discrimination.
But the newest explanation from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC), a law enforcement agency commissioned to end discrimination in Iowa, wrote that “a childcare facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public” would be subject to the regulations.
On July 4, Fort Des Moines Church of Christ filed a federal lawsuit arguing that not exempting church services—all of which are open to the public, they argue—violates the First Amendment. Without full exemption, they fear the state government could censor church teachings. . . .
Longtime First Amendment lawyer David French defended the churches.
“It’s unclear to me how a branch of the Iowa state government has determined that a ‘church service open to the public’ does not have a ‘bona fide religious purpose,’ but there it is,” he wrote. “Under current guidance, churches in Iowa must become ‘members only’ to exercise their religious liberty.”