Photo credit: Sarah Brooks

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is up for debate during the 2019 session of the 88th Iowa General Assembly. Both the Iowa House and Iowa Senate have had versions filed this year.

Last year, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act survived the first funnel, but did not receive a vote on the Senate floor and it went nowhere in the Iowa House.

The Iowa Senate’s version, SF 508 (formerly SF 240), has passed out of subcommittee last month when State Senators Dennis Guth (R-Klemme) and Jeff Elder (R-State Center) voting in favor of the bill and State Senator Robert Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) voting against. It passed out of the Senate Local Government Committee by a 7 to 4 party line vote on Monday, surviving the first funnel week.

State Senators Elder, Thomas Green (R-Burlington), Julian Garrett (R-Indianola), Guth, Tim Kraayenbrink (R-Ft. Dodge), Mark Lofgren (R-Muscatine), and Mark Segebart (R-Vail) voted for the bill. State Senators Jackie Smith (D-Sioux City), Nate Boulton (D-Des Moines), Robert Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids), and Herman Quirmback (D-Ames) voted no.

Guth is the original sponsor of the bill. State Senators Zach Whiting (R-Spirit Lake), Jake Chapman (R-Adel), Jim Carlin (R-Sioux City), Mark Costello (R-Imogene), Garrett, Jerry Behn (R-Boone), Craig Johnson (R-Independence), Ken Rozenboom (R-Oskaloosa), Segebart, Chris Cournoyer (R-LeClaire), Kraayenbrink, Randy Feenstra (R-Hull), Annette Sweeney (R-Alden), Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig), and Elder are co-sponsors.

Iowa’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act echoes the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 that passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

It does not allow discrimination but provides an avenue for judicial review if a person claims their exercise of religion has been substantially burdened by the state or a municipality.

The bill reads:

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.

So this requires three questions to be answered when the state takes action that may infringe on someone’s religious liberty:

  1. Is the government substantially burdening a person’s sincere belief through its action? If the answer is yes, then the case moves forward. If the answer is no, then the case will be dismissed.
  2. Does the government have a compelling reason (like health or safety) to interfere? If the answer is no then the case is closed and the individual wins. If the answer is yes then the case moves forward.
  3. Is there a reasonable alternative to serve the public interest? If the answer is yes, the case the individual will win. If the answer is no then that person will lose.

So when prior government action is at odds with a person’s free exercise of religion, state and local government have the burden to demonstrate that a compelling government interest and that the step they took is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

This should be the case. State and local government should not be able to infringe upon a person’s free exercise of religion. This should be a no brainer.

But big business has lined up against this bill which is why it did not pass last year. Registered against the bill are groups like Meredith Corporation, Facebook, Microsoft Corporation, Google, Apple, Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, Iowa Business Council, Ames Chamber of Commerce, Federation of Iowa Insurers, Wellmark, Iowa Association of Business and Industry, Greater Des Moines Partnership, Iowa Chamber Alliance, Travel Federation of Iowa, and Principal Financial Group.

Big business does not care about small business owners who have found their right to religious conscience under attack by LGBTQ activism; these groups cater to them in some cases because they agree and in other cases, because they are afraid of the boycotts action like this could bring.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not allow discrimination however.

Here is an example. Under RFRA a restaurant owner could find relief if they refuse to cater a same-sex wedding reception because participating in such an activity would violate their religious conscience. The state of Iowa, under this bill, should have difficulty demonstrating a compelling government interest, as well as, demonstrating that forcing this restaurant owner to provide that service is a reasonable alternative to serve the public interest when there are all sorts of caterers who would be just fine with catering that reception.

That same restaurant owner under RFRA would not find relief if they just refuse to serve homosexuals who come into their restaurant to eat.

The critical difference here is that one is a particular event that violates the religious conscience of many faithful Iowans, and the other is a refusal of service based upon the identity of a potential customer.

In fact, in most, if not all, cases in the courts where people of faith have had complaints filed against them by LGBTQ customers over refusing to provide services for a same-sex wedding ceremony or services those businesses served those same customers in other ways. It was not about discrimination; it was about their religious conscience.

Even if lobbyists for big business do not understand this, Iowa’s lawmakers and Governor Kim Reynolds should. It’s time for Iowa to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect Iowans’ religious freedom instead of bowing to the almighty dollar.

There is a companion bill in the Iowa House, HF 258, sponsored by State Representative Sandy Salmon (R-Janesville) and cosponsored by State Representatives Steven Holt (R-Denison), Tedd Gassman (R-Scarville), Terry Baxter (R-Garner), Stan Gustafson (R-Cumming), Jeff Shipley (R-Fairfield), Skyler Wheeler (R-Orange City), Jon Jacobsen (R-Council Bluffs), Anne Osmundson (R-Volga), David Kerr (R-Morning Sun), Tom Moore (R-Griswold), Shannon Lundgren (R-Peosta), Andy McKean (R-Anamosa), Cecil Dolecheck (R-Mount Ayr), Dean Fisher (R-Montour), Rob Bacon (R-Slater), and Phil Thompson (R-Jefferson).

HF 258 was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on February 6 and no action has been taken on it yet.

Photo credit: Sarah Brooks

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