An Iowa House subcommittee advanced a bill through subcommittee on Tuesday that would prohibit the Governor of Iowa from closing, placing a mandate on or otherwise regulating a place or practice of worship for any reason — including through a disaster proclamation such as what happened during COVID-19.
House File 2097 moved through the first step of the legislative process with support from Republican State Representatives Bobby Kaufmann and John Wills while Democrat State Rep. Lindsay James opposed the legislation.
Connie Ryan of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund spoke against the bill, praising Gov. Kim Reynolds for how she handled COVID initially.
“She took actions to close businesses, schools, public spaces and houses of worship,” Ryan said. “She understood that we were not in control of a virus that was harming and killing Iowans. She seemed to understand it was her responsibility as governor to put public health and safety first. And then, something shifted. Politics and political pressure took control. What still makes me shake my head are the clergy who put their own, mostly political, agenda above the safety of their members and the public at large. Ministers who did not and do not believe in science.”
Ryan said those clergy members demonstrate they “don’t care about God’s compelling message to love your neighbor.”
“This legislation takes on that same mantra of ministers who care more about their political agenda and gain than they do their members and public at large,” she said. “As a person of faith, child of God, it is beyond me how that could even be.”
Ryan Benn of The FAMiLY Leader said the bill simply states what the First Amendment should already provide. Benn said Reynolds was “great” during COVID, but noted a lot of other states were not as lucky. In California, Benn said churches were closed for nine months.
Mady Bradley with the Iowa Public Health Association said the organization is against the bill because disease and disasters are not space dependent.
“This bill would take away a last resort tool that I hope that we never have to use,” Bradley said.
Deb Davis, a resident of Johnston, said she doesn’t believe the bill is about politics and it’s more about the mental health of the citizens who find their strength and faith in gathering together.
“The choice for churches to remain open should remain with the churches and should not be dictated by the governor,” Davis said. “In disasters, people are looking for hope and guidance.”
James said she would not support the bill because the government’s role to protect the common good is also a role shared by religious communities.
“These are not two separate things,” James said.
James had concerns about the governor being limited in cases of natural disasters and also questioned what would happen in a similar situation to the Waco, Texas incident where kids are worshipping in a community where dangerous activity is taking place.
Republican State Rep. John Wills said that closing businesses during an emergency is one thing, but a constitutionally protected issue like freedom of religion is part of the First Amendment for a reason.
“I would like to believe that people can make their decisions based on what they know and based on what the government is telling them as far as we shouldn’t meet in large groups,” Wills said. “I believe people can make their decisions based on those facts.”
Kaufmann called out the claim that the bill is about politics.
“As the floor manager, let me assure you there’s nothing to do with politics on this and the assignment of that accusation to me is insulting,” Kaufmann said. “This is about the right thing to do, not about politics.”