DES MOINES, Iowa – An Iowa law could threaten Missouri Baptist work in the state through the Heartland Interstate Strategy (HIS), an initiative to multiply churches along the I-29 corridor from Kansas City, through the western edge of Iowa, and up to the Canadian city of Winnipeg.
If the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s interpretation of state civil rights laws is upheld, the state could force churches to open restrooms to people of the opposite sex and prohibit preachers from proclaiming biblical views about gender.
According to HIS Coordinator Jeffrey Chavez, legal trouble from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission could be enough to close the doors of a small church plant along the I-29 corridor in the state.
“We, as pastors and church leaders in the area, are going to have to take a stand,” Chavez said. “But, at the same time, we’re going to have to make some alternative plans to protect our congregations.”
No matter what trouble comes, he said that church planters supported by the Missouri Baptist Convention’s HIS initiative will continue to strive after their goal of making disciples in the region.
“The one thing I would love everybody to understand is that our God is in control,” Chavez said. “The world is going to change, and there are things we can’t change. But the one thing we can affect is people’s lives—in a positive way, by showing them the grace and love of Jesus Christ.”
Yet, according to Michael Whitehead, legal counsel for the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), this threat to religious freedom could indeed hamper Missouri Baptist efforts to multiply churches in Iowa.
“Public accommodation laws in the hands of sexual revolutionaries can become a wrecking ball against religious liberty, even for churches in Missouri helping to plant churches in Iowa,” Whitehead said.
Fortunately, no trouble has yet fallen upon Iowa churches as a result of this law. And in a preemptive strike, one Iowa church—Fort Des Moines Church of Christ here—challenged the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s interpretation of the law in a suit filed in federal court, July 4. Another church, Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City, sent a letter to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, July 5, demanding that the commission amend its policy about churches and gender identity discrimination.
At the center of the churches’ concern is a brochure released by the commission, titled “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” As reported by Baptist Press, the brochure states that churches must “sometimes” open locker rooms and bathrooms to people based not on their biological sex, but rather on their own perceptions about their gender.
“Iowa law,” the brochure explains, “provides that these [anti-discrimination] 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. Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions. (e.g., a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public.”
Illegal harassment, according to the brochure, may be either “verbal … or written”; churches and other organizations, it states, may not “directly or indirectly” make a person feel “unwelcome” because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“One can hardly imagine a more obvious unconstitutional invasion of the state into the internal affairs of the church,” said Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative legal agency representing the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ. Churches, she said, “have a firmly established freedom to teach their beliefs and set internal policies that reflect their biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality.”
“Iowa bureaucrats have reportedly edited their brochure,” Whitehead said. But this, ultimately, isn’t the aim of the ADF lawsuit.
“The ADF lawsuit was not about ‘wrongful brochure writing,’” he said. “It was about the principle that calling a church a public accommodation somehow allows state government to crash through the church door and begin to enforce the state’s doctrine about sexuality and bathroom access.”
The HIS/I-29 initiative currently sponsors 32 church planters from Kansas City to Winnipeg, including 10 that were recruited during the past year. Additionally, several apprentices and interns are doing work along the I-29 corridor, with hopes of someday planting churches in the region.