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Iowa Senate passes controversial religious freedom legislation

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Iowa Senate passes controversial religious freedom legislation

Feb 20, 2024 | 7:43 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
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Iowa Senate passes controversial religious freedom legislation
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The Iowa Senate passed a bill that would raise the legal bar for determining whether a government action presents a substantial burden to a person's ability to practice their religion. (Photo illustration via Canva)

Iowa senators on Tuesday passed a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, despite Democrats saying the measure could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ Iowans and other marginalized groups.

Senate File 2095 passed on a vote of 31-16. It proposes a higher legal standard for situations in which a person claims that government action has restricted their exercise of religion. It requires that governments have a compelling interest that is being pursued using the least limiting means.

A person who believes a government entity’s actions “substantially burden” their religious practices could take the issue to court, where they could seek assessed actual damages or other steps to address the violation of their religious rights.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, praised the federal RFRA passed in 1993 under former President Bill Clinton and a Democrat-led Congress. The bill introduced would extend these federal protections to Iowa, as U.S. legislators originally intended the measure to cover states, he said.

Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, said “the landscape has changed substantially” since federal lawmakers passed the original RFRA law. In the years since, state religious freedom restoration laws have been used in efforts where individuals and businesses claim they have a right to discriminate based on their religious beliefs.

Weiner introduced an amendment that stated RFRA provisions can’t be applied to protections against discrimination covered under laws like the U.S. and Iowa civil rights acts, the Americans with Disabilities Act and laws protecting against child labor abuse or exploitation. This measure is necessary to ensure that RFRA language cannot be used to deny access to health care or allow discrimination against employees or customers on the basis of religious expression, she said.

“In other words, it would make RFRA RFRA again, a shield against government abuse and really put it back where that broad coalition intended it to be in 1993,” Weiner said.

Schultz argued that the amendment was redundant, as state civil rights laws and the RFRA legislation are not in conflict.

“An exclusion, such as being suggested here, would put the Legislature in the position of pre-determining that civil rights laws should always prevail over religious practice, regardless of how remote and attenuated the state interest and how core the religious interest,” Schultz said.

Weiner argued that adding this legal test to protect religious freedom has been used in cases like Blattert, Jr. v. State, where a father argued the child abuse statutes he was charged under violate his religious exercise, as his Christian beliefs mandate that he disciplines his children with corporal punishment as necessary.

She said it also was used in Hochstetler v. State, where an Amish church pressured a woman to drop a protective order against her husband through actions like denying her church participation and ability to make purchases at Amish stores.

These cases forced abuse victims to go through years of court proceedings and pressure, intimidation and harassment from the perpetrator, she said. The bill could also have unintended consequences in relation to other state laws, she said, pointing to an Indiana lawsuit filed by Hoosier Jews for Choice and anonymous women of faith arguing the state’s abortion ban infringed on their religious beliefs.

“I ask that you consider our very real concerns and take them seriously,” Weiner said. “This bill as written is simply too broad, and laws like it have proven to be an open door for discrimination.”

Her amendment failed.

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, asked Schultz for examples of situations in Iowa where a person’s ability to practice religion had been violated by government bodies. Schultz cited the “COVID overreaction” and lockdown restrictions that prevented him and other Iowans from attending in-person church services during the pandemic.

Wahls said while there are some situations where RFRA language could be used for the sincere protection of religious freedoms, that Republicans rejecting the amendment to uphold anti-discrimination laws showed the legislation is actually about “allowing some people to cite their religious beliefs to violate the basic civil rights protections that all Iowans benefit from.”

Wahls linked the bill to other measures focused on targeting LGBTQ Iowans discussed this session, including the governor’s proposal that would allow transgender people to be excluded from sex-segregated spaces and require a transgender person assigned sex at birth be listed on birth certificates alongside their sex designation after gender-related treatment.

“This legislation is just the latest in a long and exhausting line of bills that will make it more difficult for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other queer Iowans to live, work and raise a family in this state,” Wahls said. “And we know that because we have seen how these laws are used in other states not as a shield exclusively to protect the religious freedom of believers, but as a sword to discriminate against others who believe and identify differently across the United States.”

Schultz said the lawsuits cited by Democrats on issues like child abuse were issues of people “inappropriately” using state RFRA laws — an issue that occurs with many other important laws. He also said that there have been no cases where RFRA laws have been used in the targeting of LGBTQ people.

“I looked into that so that I could look my colleagues in the eye and say, ‘I’m not leading you down a road that you’re going to be embarrassed (by,)’ because I don’t think anybody wants to do that,” Schultz said.

In a statement Tuesday, Weiner said Iowa will “lose out on critical economic opportunities” if the RFRA legislation is signed into law. During a January subcommittee meeting, lobbyists with business groups spoke in opposition to the measure because it could make Iowa less attractive to potential employees or other business opportunities.

“When we’re facing a historic workforce crisis, we must draw people to Iowa – not push them away,” Weiner said. “RFRA is wrong for Iowa.”

The companion bill, House File 2454, is available for debate in the House.