Holy war: Government tries to control church sermons

An Iowa church just wants to be free to preach the gospel, but the state’s so-called nondiscrimination requirements could block the house of worship from doing just that.

Lawyers for the church are asking a federal court to prevent Iowa from censoring what the religious group can say about homosexuality, same-sex “marriage,” transgenderism and other related topics.

The case erupted when the state’s Civil Rights Commission first claimed the authority to control the content of sermons and then to define what’s religious.

At issue is the state’s nondiscrimination requirements that specify any “public accommodation” can be ordered not to say anything that might make a homosexual or a transgender feel “unwelcome,” such as even reading from the Bible a condemnation of such behavior.

Lawyers for the Alliance Defending Freedom, who are representing the church, have filed a reply in support of their motion for a preliminary injunction that would protect the church members’ constitutional rights while the case plays out.

Without that order, they contend the speech of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ and its pastors and members is being unconstitutionally limited.

The state commission declined, again, to respond to a WND request for comment.

Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for ADF, said the issue is about the basics of the Constitution.

“Churches should be free to communicate their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment. It’s not good enough for government officials to say we should simply trust them to tell us what is religious and what isn’t. The law must be clear, and at present, the only thing that’s clear is that the law gives too much power to government bureaucrats who don’t even seem to understand the most basic constitutional principles,” she said.

ADF Senior Counsel Steven O’Ban said that in the meantime, the court “should issue an injunction that makes certain that this law won’t be enforced against our client while this lawsuit proceeds.”

“Neither the commission nor any state law has the constitutional authority to dictate how a church uses its facility or what public statements a church can make concerning human sexuality,” he said.

The Iowa Civil Rights Act 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 state claims churches are a”public accommodation.”

But the state’s interpretation could be used by bureaucrats to bar churches from making “unwelcome” public comments during an activity the commission deems not to have a “bona fide religious purpose.”

The state commission also claims the state law demands that people be given access to church restrooms and locker rooms according to “gender identity.”

The new brief in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa said the commission’s “overreach is entirely predictable in light of Iowa’s constitutionally flawed definition of public accommodation, which clearly encompasses churches. The commission has twice tried to inform ‘churches’ and then ‘places of worship’ what activities will bring them under the act. But in doing so, the commission only highlights how the act interferes into the internal affairs of houses of worship, and why a preliminary injunction is absolutely necessary to protect the church from further chill of its constitutional rights.”

WND reported in July that the state commission had published guidelines that declared it had the authority to decide what constitutes religion.

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”

ADF explained that when it initially sued over the constitutional dispute, the state revised its guidance document.

But the result was just as bad as the first, ADF 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 lawyers explained earlier.

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.”

“Not only do defendants ignore the applicable free exercise case law, they completely ignore the church’s arguments that the speech ban … is content and viewpoint-based discrimination and, therefore, presumptively unconstitutional,” the filing warns.

ADF lawyers noted 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.”

Named as defendants are commission members Angela Jackson, Patricia Lipski, Mathew Hosford, Tom Conley, Douglas Oelschaleger, Lily Lijun Hou and Lawrence Cunningham, and city of Des Moines Executive Director Kristen Johnson and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.

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