Sound Teaching

This is the teaching site of the West Side church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials were written and prepared by Stan Cox

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Bona Fide Religious Purpose?


In 2007, the state of Iowa updated the state’s Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The statute prohibits “unfair or discriminatory practice” in any public accommodation. However, it contains an exemption for religious organizations. A provision in the law states that the law does not apply to “any bona fide religious institution with respect to any qualifications the institution may impose based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.” The term “bona fide religious purpose” is nebulous.

In fact, a brochure published by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission interpreted the law in a broad fashion. The brochure stated:

Does this law apply to churches? Sometimes. Iowa law provides that these 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).

The problem with that explanation is that it would be inclusive of any worship period at most churches, as they are always “open to the public.” This fact led to a preemptive lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Earlier this month, the commission decided to amend the brochure, to clarify its interpretation of the law as it impacts churches. The new brochure states that places of worship “are generally exempt from the Iowa law’s prohibition of discrimination.” Exceptions would include a church venue being used for non-religious activities that serve the greater public, such as running an independent day care or serving as a polling place for an election.

Kristin H. Johnson, executive director of the Commission, made clear that this was not a change in policy. In other words, the interpretation of the law is the same, and it remains that churches are exempt only as they are engaging in bona fide religious activities.

Some observations come to mind. First, I am grateful that it is not the intent of the state of Iowa to go after churches for preaching the truth regarding homosexuality. I am also thankful that a worship service where visitors are welcome would not be subject to enforcement of that law.

However, I note that this is an indication of how our societal mores have changed, and how the profession of our faith is unacceptable to the majority. I fear that the protection we have enjoyed as Christians may not long remain. The fact that such “interpretations” are not presently being pursued is no guarantee they will not be in the future.

Second, I note that the government makes a distinction between bona fide religious activities, and activities that are not truly religious in nature. The Bible makes the same distinction. Churches today regularly engage in activities, and use their facilities for the same, that are in no way bona fide religious in nature. The practice of the social gospel has no validity in the eyes of God, and may soon bring churches into conflict with the secular government. God intended his people, as a group, to preach to the lost, worship Him, and edify one another. The mission of the church is limited to spiritual concerns. For the present at least, limiting ourselves to those activities found in scripture will not only please God, but will also appease the government.