In a recent landmark ruling, a federal district court in Iowa addressed the potential liability of churches under the nondiscrimination provisions of a "public accommodations" law for failing to provide restroom and shower facilities according to a person's "gender identity" as opposed to gender at birth. Fort Des Moines Church of Christ v. Jackson, 2016 WL 6089842 (S.D. Iowa 2016).
This article will review the facts of this case, explain the court's ruling, and assess the possible significance of the case to churches and church leaders.
A church in Des Moines, Iowa, claimed that state and municipal antidiscrimination laws unconstitutionally interfered with its constitutional rights. The church wanted to communicate messages that would place qualifications based on gender identity on who may use its restrooms and showers. It also wanted to explain its views supporting these qualifications through a sermon by one of its pastors. To these ends, it sought a preliminary injunction enjoining the enforcement of certain provisions of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) and the Des Moines City Code, both of which prohibit places of public accommodation from discriminating based on gender identity. Both laws contain exemptions for religious acts of religious institutions. The members of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) and the state attorney general (collectively "the State Defendants") and Defendant City of Des Moines ("the City") asked the court to dismiss the church's request for a preliminary injunction.