Des Moines, Iowa, Oct 17, 2016 / 04:13 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A church’s lawsuit may go forward because it reasonably feared that Iowa’s strict anti-discrimination law would create legal penalties for its preaching and for having single-sex bathrooms and showers, an Iowa court has ruled.

“The government acts outside of its authority when it attempts to control churches,” said Steve O’Ban, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. “Neither the commission nor any state law has the constitutional authority to dictate how any church uses its facility or what public statements a church can make concerning sexuality.”

O’Ban represented Fort Des Moines Church of Christ in U.S. district court. The church is suing based on fears the state’s anti-discrimination policy on gender identity and sexual orientation would make it legally liable for preaching and following its views on homosexuality and transgender issues — including having single-sex bathrooms.

Judge Stephanie Rose of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa rejected state officials’ request to dismiss the church’s lawsuit Oct. 14. She agreed with the church that the law had a chilling effect on its speech. Although the court denied the church’s request for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law, it allowed the lawsuit to proceed because the church’s fear of prosecution was “objectively reasonable.”

The church’s policy is likely permitted under the law because the policy is “plainly drafted to serve a religious purpose,” the ruling said. At the same time, the court said state and city officials’ statements that the law doesn’t apply to the church have little weight because they do not prevent officials from enforcing the law.

Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, said the lawsuit was necessary. “Churches should be free to talk about their religious beliefs and operate their houses of worship according to their faith without fearing government punishment,” she said. O’Ban added: “As the court found, government bureaucrats don’t get to decide which church activities have a religious purpose; that’s for the church to decide.”  

Earlier this year the Iowa Civil Rights Commission produced a guide to Iowa law for public accommodations providers concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. The brochure-sized guide said the 2007 Iowa Civil Rights Act applies to churches “sometimes.” It acknowledged that the law does not apply to religious institutions in the matter of a “bona fide religious purpose,” but appeared to open the door to prosecution.

“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),” the pamphlet said. It barred harassment including “intentional use of names and pronouns inconsistent with a person’s presented gender.”

According to the commission, the law requires locker rooms, restrooms, and living facilities in places of public accommodation to be open to persons based on their self-identified gender identity. Those who believe they have been discriminated against may file a complaint with the civil rights commission. The pamphlet said it was designed for educational purposes only and not intended to be legal advice.