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Iowa top court: You cannot bar men from women's restrooms

Des Moines, IOWA – The next time you visit a “men’s” or “women’s” restroom at an Iowa business, the words on the door may be all but irrelevant.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that the “gender identity” clause of Iowa’s Civil Rights Code, passed into law in 2007, makes it illegal for businesses to require employees to use the restroom that corresponds to their biological sex.

And according to The FAMiLY Leader’s Vice President and Chief Counsel Chuck Hurley, the same is likely to go for a business’ customers and guests.

“The concept of a public ‘men’s room’ or ‘women’s room’ in Iowa is virtually no more,” said Hurley. “And Iowa businesses need to know if they try to prevent a man who says he ‘identifies’ as a woman from entering the women’s bathroom, the businesses can be sued, and they will lose.”

“This is exactly the case The FAMiLY Leader warned about in 2007,” Hurley concluded. “As long as ‘gender identity’ in its widest definition is included in the Civil Rights Code, a man can claim to be a woman at any time and legally demand everyone treat him as one. It defies basic biology, endangers women and girls, and essentially makes common sense illegal in Iowa.”

The FAMiLY Leader’s Director of Policy Daniel Sunne notes that Iowa’s Civil Rights Code does allow for separate men’s and women’s bathrooms in schools and religious institutions.

“Religious institutions are safe to require individuals use the bathrooms that correspond with their sex,” Sunne clarified, “at least so long as they are using their facility for religious purposes. The law is less clear on protecting religious institutions when they rent or offer space to the public for non-religious use.

“The other important exception is schools,” Sunne said. “Section 216.9 gives educational institutions the ability to maintain separate bathrooms and locker rooms based on sex.

“Concerned parents, therefore, should not give up the fight to protect their children in schools and sports teams, nor be bullied into believing a school cannot maintain a girls’ room,” he said.

Friday’s Iowa Supreme Court ruling stems from a 2015 complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Jesse Vroegh, a staff nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. Though born a woman, Vroegh identifies as male and insisted upon using the men’s room at work, even though gender-neutral and unisex restrooms were provided.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the correctional facility violated the “gender identity” clause of the Iowa Civil Rights Code and awarded Vroegh $120,000 in emotional distress damages and nearly $350,000 in attorneys fees.

And while the ruling has opened a Pandora’s Box for people concerned about the privacy of their nearest bathroom, Sunne says there is both a silver lining and a way to address the problem in Iowa’s law.

“The ruling could have been a lot worse. The Iowa Supreme Court rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s reasoning (in Bostock v. Clayton County) that ‘sex’ means ‘gender identity’ in the law,” Sunne said. “This suggests if ‘gender identity’ were not specifically written into the Iowa Civil Rights Code, Vroegh would not have had a case.

“The problem lies, therefore, not with the judges, but with the law itself,” Sunne concluded, “and the Iowa Legislature has the responsibility to correct this law.”

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