GOP legislators give new push to religious freedom legislation
GOP legislators give new push to religious freedom legislation

Iowa lawmakers are again considering raising the legal bar for government infringement on freedom of religion. (Stock photo via Canva)

Republicans in both the Iowa Senate and House gave initial approval Tuesday to a religious freedom bill that advocates say would uphold First Amendment rights while opponents argue it would be a license for discrimination.

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Senate File 2095 advanced out of a three-member State Government subcommittee with two Republican votes. The bill would raise the legal bar for government actions that burden a person’s exercise of religion, requiring a compelling government interest. A government body that is found to be in violation could be assessed actual damages, attorney fees and court costs.

Earlier Tuesday, House Study Bill 614 also advanced out of Judiciary subcommittee with two Republican votes.

The legislation is similar to bills debated often in the past that would create a version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, in state law. As in the past, Iowa business organizations opposed it Tuesday based on concerns that it would make the state less attractive to potential employees.

Tim Coonan, lobbyist for Principal Financial Group, said the business views the proposal as a workforce issue. “Senate File 2095 would enable discrimination. It would empower Iowa business owners to deny services or accommodations based on potential customer sexual orientation or gender identity or any other protected class. While termed religious freedom, we believe that such discrimination in any context is contrary to our state’s values and sends the wrong message about Iowa,” he said.

Damien Thompson of Iowa Safe Schools, which advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, said the bill could lead to discrimination against a wide variety of groups.

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“Religious leaders could refuse to cooperate with investigations into child abuse by claiming their beliefs prevent them from testifying against members of their own church. A pediatrician could refuse to provide medical care for a child of a gay or lesbian couple. A child services agency could decide to keep a child in foster care with negative outcomes rather than place her with a loving, qualified lesbian couple who wants to adopt. A landlord can refuse to rent to an apartment to an unmarried couple or single mother, a business owner could refuse to serve a customer of a different faith such as a Jewish customer or Muslim customer if they claim that doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs,” he said.

Christian organizations were among the advocates for the bill and they argued that concerns about discrimination have not materialized in the states that have similar laws.

“In other states, this has proven to be a sensible test that gives religious freedom a fair hearing in court,” Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference said. “This bill does not grant anyone new rights. This bill also protects people of all faiths. This is especially true for minority religions, whose traditions are not always part of the mainstream culture. This can include things like maintaining dietary restrictions, wearing head coverings or facial hair.”

Chuck Hurley of The Family Leader said the “parade of horribles” outlined by opponents have not happened in the 34 states with similar laws and that states with such laws have “the best business climates.”

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, the committee chair, also said he was skeptical of arguments about potential harm to the economy or the creation of loopholes in laws such as those outlawing domestic violence.  “The point here is that we’re putting language in code that a court is to follow when it when it gets there. Does the state have a compelling interest in stopping the husband from beating his wife? I’d suspect there’s a chance they do,” he said.

Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, did not sign the bill and said state and federal RFRA laws have led to some of the discriminatory practices and loopholes in the law that other opponents mentioned. “One way to avoid these unintended consequences would be by adoption of a ‘do no harm’ act, which would clarify that RFRA is intended to protect religious freedom without allowing the infliction of harm on other people, that it cannot be used to bypass state protections or used to discriminate or impose one person’s or group’s belief on others,” she said.

The post GOP legislators give new push to religious freedom legislation appeared first on Iowa Capital Dispatch.


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