Hate speech is protected speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has rightfully declared. Until Friday, Iowa flirted dangerously with state-sponsored infringement on intolerant religious speech. And, judging by their swift response, state officials knew it.
That's when the Iowa Civil Rights Commission revised its guidance on Iowa's non-discrimination law, which first included protections for the LGBTQ community since 2007. The language was, at best, sloppy. At worst, the brochure was unconstitutional censorship of religious speech. At least two evangelical churches -- Fort Des Moines Church of Christ and Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City -- were ready to throttle the state's obvious impingement on the First Amendment in court. Fort Des Moines, last week, filed a federal lawsuit against the state directive with the backing of the Alliance Defending Freedom. For its part, Cornerstone was heading in that direction.
Even the most pro-gay rights proponent should have rejected the government's intrusion into speech and religion should have been troubled by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission's slapdash use of language. Yes, a transgender bathroom directive was part of the complaint, but it wan't the crux of the matter.
"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)," stated the previous guidance last updated in 2008.
A "bona fide religious purpose" is murky enough. "Church service open to the public," was even worse. Most churches have an open-door policy during services, the lawsuit noted. As such, the state's directive could, effectively, muzzle the pulpit.
Commission Executive Director Kristin Johnson, an appointee of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, didn't disagree with the lawsuit's assertion. Certain anti-gay messages from the pulpit could, in theory, be considered harassment under state law, she said last week.
Dangerous ground, indeed.
To its credit, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission reacted quickly. The lawsuit was filed July 4. By Friday, a new guidance aimed at dispelling the churches' fears was rolled out.
“Places of worship (e.g. churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) are generally exempt from the Iowa law’s prohibition of discrimination, unless the place of worship engages in non-religious activities which are open to the public," reads the new brochure.
Fort Des Moines Church of Christ has indicated that the change isn't good enough and plans to continue its lawsuit. Church leaders seem intent on challenging the legality of transgender bathrooms on bingo night. That's their prerogative. But, they're probably headed toward a string of courtroom defeats. Similar "house of worship" arguments, mind you, were unsuccessful in the mid-1960s when various religious institutions tried to circumvent the federal Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial segregation. The tactic failed again in 1967, when Virginia state officials tapped biblical interpretation to justify that state's laws against interracial marriage.
Over and over, religious extremists have wrongly predicted that anti-discrimination protections would rot the country.
But the fact that, either by accident or intent, Iowa basically outlawed religious speech is troubling. Good intentions aren't enough to justify such an infringement on speech. Nowhere does the U.S. Constitution guarantee someone's right to not be offended.
I have no doubt that many, myself included, would find the religious doctrine spoken from the pulpit at Fort Des Moines Church of Christ hateful and discriminatory. And I have a right to criticize the message and not put cash into the Sunday till.
But the state has no place quashing a churches' biblical interpretation, no matter how bigoted.
Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org