Photo Credit: Jason Mrachina (CC-By-NC-ND 2.0)

A bill, SF 2154, entitled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), was filed in the Iowa Senate on Thursday.  The bill is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 that was passed with bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

In 1997, in the City of Boerne v. Flores decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the federal RFRA did not apply to the states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, since 1993, 21 states have enacted their own RFRA laws some closely modeled after the federal law while some “echo” it. Arkansas and Indiana were the last two states to pass their own RFRA laws in 2015.

The bill that has been referred to the Senate State Government Committee states:

Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to that person’s exercise of religion is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

It places the burden on state and local government to prove they have a compelling interest that should override someone’s religious freedom and right to conscience.

The bill makes it clear that those impacted by government action can assert a claim on these grounds.

A person whose exercise of religion has been burdened in violation of this chapter may assert such violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding and obtain appropriate relief. Standing to assert a claim or defense under this chapter shall be governed by the general rules of standing under state and federal law.

This bill would apply to all existing state and local laws, as well as, the implementation of future laws. Those in adult or juvenile corrections whether at the state, judicial district, or county level would be exempt from this bill.

This bill may have benefitted Betty and Dick Odgaard who owned the Gortz Haus Gallery in Grimes. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission ruled against them after they refused to allow a same-sex wedding to be held in their premises on religious conscience grounds. They were fined, decided to stop renting the facility for weddings, and eventually went out of business.

State Senator Dennis Guth (R-Klemme) is the chief sponsor of this bill. It is co-sponsored by State Senators Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig), Ken Rozenboom (R-Oskaloosa), Jim Carlin (R-Sioux City), Mark Costello (R-Imogene), Mark Segebart (R-Vail), Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa), Julian Garrett (R-Indianola), Jeff Edler (R-State Center), Rick Bertrand (R-Sioux City), Tim Kraayenbrink (R-Fort Dodge), Craig Johnson (R-Independence), Jerry Behn (R-Boone), Mark Lofgren (R-Muscatine), Thomas Greene (R-Burlington), Randy Feenstra (R-Hull), Tom Shipley (R-Nodaway), and Waylon Brown (R-St. Ansgar).

The Child and Family Policy Center, Iowa State Education Association, Iowa Safe Schools, Human Rights Campaign, American Civil Rights Union of Iowa, One Iowa Action, Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Principal Financial Group, and Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund have registered in opposition to the bill at the time of this writing.

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