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State doubles down, wants to define what’s religious

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Now the church has filed a request for an immediate protective order in response to the state’s claim of authority to define what is religious.

The case is over the aggressive actions by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, which has published guidelines for handling transgender issues in church gatherings that are “open to the public.” The lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ aims “to stop the commissioners and the executive director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, the Iowa attorney general, and the city of Des Moines from compelling an Iowa church to communicate government messages to which it objects and from forcing the church to use its building in violation of its religious beliefs.”

It explained the commission believes its interpretation of state law allows it “to force churches to allow individuals access to church restrooms, shower facilities, and changing rooms based on his or her gender identity, irrespective of biological sex.”

At issue in the Iowa case are state mandates that protect “transgender rights.” Among them are allowing men to enter women’s shower rooms, dressing rooms and restrooms if they say they are women and banning statements in meetings “open to the public” that “might cause individuals to believe that they are unwelcome because of their perceived gender identity”

The lawsuit charges the mandates violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections of free speech, religion, expressive association, due process and peaceably assembly.

Now ADF has asked the court for a preliminary injunction to protect the church from attacks by the state until the issue is resolved in court.

“After this lawsuit was filed, the commission revised its guidance document,” a brief filed in support of the request for an injunction said. “The commission continued to single out places of worship for special instruction and to sanction churches that communicate their beliefs about biological sex, and operate their facilities consistent with those beliefs, when they engage in ‘non-religious activities.’ The commission does not define the newly minted and vague term ‘non-religious activities,’ reserving to itself the unbridled discretion to determine for a church which of its activities are religious and which are not.”

The brief said that for “the first time in our nation’s history, state officials are reaching into the internal affairs of churches to silence them from teaching and publicly promoting a central tenet of their faith and forcing them to operate their own facilities in a way that contradicts their faith.”

“This unprecedented overreach eviscerates the First Amendment and the foundational freedoms it embodies; the freedom of church autonomy, freedom to worship, freedom of speech, freedom of rexpressive association, and freedom to peaceably assemble without government interference.”

The immediate protective order is needed, the church brief argues, because the state’s actions “directly and continually harm the church’s ability to teach its doctrines, to govern itself, and to follow its faith.”

“The church therefore needs a preliminary injunction to stop this ongoing irreparable harm and to bar the government from areas where it doesn’t belong — the church’s showers and restrooms, its sanctuary, and its pulpit.”

ADF lawyers said the filing came on the same day Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote to Iowa officials explaining the “approach taken by the ICRC plainly violates both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

“Cosmetic changes to the alarming language in one brochure won’t fix the unconstitutionality of the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Churches should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment, and until the law is changed, every church in Iowa has a right to be concerned.

“That’s why we are asking the court to issue an injunction that makes certain that this law will not be enforced against our client while this lawsuit proceeds. No state or local law should threaten the foundational First Amendment protections for free speech and the free exercise of religion.”

The state’s “transgender law” bans bans places of public accommodation from expressing their views on human sexuality if they “would ‘directly or indirectly’ make ‘persons of any particular…gender identity’ feel ‘unwelcome.’”

The speech ban could be used to silence pastors in their pulpits, ADF said.

ADF attorneys representing the church say all events on its property have a bona fide religious purpose, and the commission has no authority to violate the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion and speech.

The Iowa Civil Rights Act also includes a facility-use mandate that requires anyone subject to the law to open sensitive areas such as locker rooms, showers and restrooms to persons based on their “gender identity” rather than their biological sex.

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