Are you willing to go to jail for your use of pronouns?
According to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, the Iowa Civil Rights Act (Iowa Code Chapter 216, effective July 1, 2007) means that it is illegal harassment in the state to use intentionally, “names and pronouns inconsistent with a person’s presented gender.” This law could impact the way churches do ministry, on multiple levels.
The Iowa Civil Rights Commission also explains that while it is still legal to maintain gender-segregated restrooms the law permits access to those bathrooms is only restricted by a person’s gender identity rather that their birth sex.
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According to the Commission, “Transgender individuals must also be allowed to use a gender-identity appropriate restroom without being harassed or questioned.” To be clear, the Commission writes, “It is now ILLEGAL in Iowa to discriminate against a person because of his/her sexual orientation or gender identity” (all caps in the original). Further, they explain that illegal harassment also includes; verbal, physical, or psychological abuse, along with written conduct and demeaning remarks.
Does this law apply to churches? According to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, the answer is, “Sometimes.”
The Commission originally stated that Iowa religious institutions are only exempt when facilities are used for “a bona fide religious purpose.” Incomprehensibly, the Commission then asserted, “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).”
On July 8, after a lawsuit was filed, the Commission modified its explanation of the law to say that places of worship are generally exempt from Iowa’s anti-discrimination law except when they are open for voting, providing a day care facility or other non-religious activities.
The language originally asserted that any church service open to the public would not be exempt from the Iowa Civil Rights Act. It is hard to fathom they the Commission originally suggested that a public service of worship could be construed as not having a bona fide religious purpose. While being thankful the Commission changed their explanation for the better, their explanation of the law is still problematic and restricts a a person of faith’s ability to live out their faith.
The Commission maintains that governmental officials will determine whether writings, speaking, or pronoun use, should be considered demeaning. It also means that a place of worship serving the public good as a voting place of daycare facility that restricts bathrooms and locker rooms to an individual’s God-given biological sex would be in the words of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, “ILLEGAL.”
This law is tantamount to the government officials in Iowa becoming a de facto state church. Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb said, “Churches have always been protected from government intrusion, and they still are. They have a firmly established freedom to teach their beliefs and set internal policies that reflect their Biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality. One can hardly imagine a more obvious unconstitutional invasion of the state into the internal affairs of the church.”
Eugene Peterson has warned that American pastors often become ceremonial figures, preoccupied with external image and outwardly visible success. He writes, “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money” (Working the Angles, Eerdmans, 1987: 2). Ceremonial pastors, committed to managing the congregational status quo, can only maintain the mirage of being Christ’s shepherds in times of cultural ease.
Times when the government starts attempting to dictate the pronouns pastors can use and monitor the bathrooms in the church building, call for courageous gospel agitators who eschew Christian sentimentality. Our times call for pastors who will shepherd their congregations by willingly paying a price for what they believe and unhesitatingly speak truth to power.
These challenges to religious liberty will continue to come and when the self-appointed governmental bishops arrive on behalf of the de facto state church and say, “Use the prescribed pronouns, or else,” genuine pastors will say, “Or else then, we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
And may our churches pray, “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). What a great time and opportunity to be a Christian with the light of the Gospel in a confused and dark culture.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.