Churches to Iowa: Stay Out of Our Sermons

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Two churches are suing the Iowa Civil Rights Commission because the commissioners believe they can exercise control over pulpit speech. Led by the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, the federal lawsuit accuses the commission of overstepping its bounds by interpreting an Iowa discrimination law much too broadly.

The state passed an amendment to state civil rights laws in 2007, extending legal protection to sexual orientation and gender identity. This amendment was not seen as particularly controversial until this year, when the Iowa Civil Rights Commission released a “Provider’s Guide” that caused Christian pastors in the state to stand up and take notice.

In the guide, the commission addressed the question of whether or not state discrimination laws applied to churches. The reply was not encouraging.

“Sometimes,” the commission answered. “Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions: For example, a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public.”

The problems with that answer are numerous. For one, it puts the commission in charge of deciding which aspects of a church are “bona fide” in their religious purpose. It doesn’t take a creative imagination to see how this power can be abused. In fact, you don’t have to use your imagination at all. The commission makes it clear that any church services “open to the public” would be subject to the law. Well, for 99% of churches, this includes every service. Churches, by and large, are not secretive, closed clubs. The goal is not to keep people out; the goal is to draw people in to hear God’s Word.

Even legal scholars with a liberal viewpoint say the commission’s power does not include censoring Christian sermons. In the Des Moines Register, University of Iowa law professor Paul Gowder said, “The notion that the Civil Rights Commission can prohibit a church from sermonizing in whatever hateful or discriminatory way they want is absurd on its face.” Gowder hardly sounds like a conservative culture warrior, but he understands that the First Amendment protects religious freedom and free speech – even when others don’t like it. Especially when they don’t like it.

To paraphrase Donald Trump, we either have a First Amendment or we don’t. We are either free to exercise our religious beliefs or we aren’t. If liberals just have to keep inventing “protected groups” to limit religious freedom and the right to free expression, the war is already lost.