A Christian church is demanding that the Iowa Civil Rights Commission — the agency that enforces Iowa's non-discrimination laws — retract language "claiming it has the authority to interfere with churches’ doctrine and operation."
And another church is suing over the very same concern.
A letter sent by conservative law firm First Liberty Institute on behalf of Cornerstone World Outreach Church in Sioux City, Iowa, takes direct aim at a government brochure titled, "Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity."
The document, which is currently active and listed on the Iowa Civil Rights Commission website, serves as a guide for institutions that provide public accommodations.
The text explains that, effective July 1, 2007, the Iowa Civil Rights Act designated sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, making it illegal for public accommodations to discriminate against those groups.
The brochure defines a public accommodation as a place where goods or services are offered to the public for purchase, with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, movie theaters and other locations specifically referenced.
But the scope goes beyond that, as public accommodations also include "any place offering free services if that place receives governmental support or subsidy (food banks, shelters, disaster relief, civic festivals, etc.)" or any government office or "unit" such as a library, school or police office.
While private clubs are exempt from the provisions, that is not the case if those clubs offer services or goods to the public.
Now, here's why the document caught the attention of some houses of worship in the state. There's a section titled, "Does This Law Apply to Churches?" which proclaims that churches are "sometimes" treated as public accommodations and are, thus, in certain cases, subject to anti-discrimination law.
"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," the document reads. "Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions."
After that description, the document goes on to offer up the following examples: "A child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public."
First Liberty released a statement on Tuesday that takes aim at the brochure and demands that the state take action to remedy the language presented within.
Attorney Chelsey Youman said that it is a "clear case of the state violating the sanctity of the church" and offered up a warning about the implications.
"It should send chills down the spine of every congregation in Iowa," she said. "The State of Iowa claims it has the power to regulate what churches can teach about human sexuality and how they operate their facilities."
Youman continued, "The government has absolutely no authority to force a church to violate its religious beliefs. This is a massive violation of the First Amendment."
The letter gives the Iowa Civil Rights Commission until Aug. 5 to exempt Cornerstone World Outreach Church from the provision, or First Liberty threatens to consider taking legal action to try and remedy the situation.
The church's pastor, Cary Gordon, said in a statement that he is concerned that the government is trying to tell the church how to discuss sexuality and how to deal with ensuring the "safety and privacy" of its children.
"All we want is to be left alone to teach the word of God and minister to our community in peace," Gordon said.
It is unclear when the document was drafted or published, with First Liberty Institute attorney Hiram Sasser telling Fox News' Todd Starnes that he believes that the document mandates that churches allow transgender individuals to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity rather than their biology.
"It further compels our client to use specific pronouns when referring to certain 'gender identities' and prohibits our client from even teaching its religious beliefs," Sasser said. "Cornerstone World Outreach cannot be made to open its restrooms for use by individuals in accordance with their gender identities, rather than their sex assigned at birth."
The letter from First Liberty to the civil rights commission focuses on purported restrictions on the church's First Amendment rights to teach its theology, going on to detail what Cornerstone World Outreach believes about sexuality and gender.
"Many religious institutions, including churches such as our client, hold sincere religious beliefs that prevent them from complying with the Commission’s mandate," the letter reads. "Cornerstone World Outreach holds and teaches many scriptural beliefs pertaining to marriage, sexual morality, sexual identity, gender roles in society and in the church, sexual orientation, sexual redemption, and celibacy."
A call to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for comment and clarification has not yet been returned to the Deseret News.
The language in the brochure has raised more than a few eyebrows, with a separate church — Fort Des Moines Church of Christ — filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Des Moines on Monday, expressing concerns over the same issues; the church is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, according to the Des Moines Register.
The outlet also reported, though, that Kristin Johnson, director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, has said that the government's interpretation of the law hasn't changed, and that there are no plans to amend the church exemption.
"The Iowa Civil Rights Commission remains committed to fighting discrimination as provided in Iowa law," Johnson said, according to the Des Moines Register. "Complaints against religious institutions as public accommodations have not been considered by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission."
Fort Des Moines Church of Christ is arguing, though, that the court should issue an order that protects churches from being forced to comply with the transgender bathroom laws.
Additionally, the house of worship argues that, since services are always open to the public, sermons about sexuality could end up being regulated.
Both churches reportedly fear that a future complaint could spawn a chaotic battle between church and state.