Religious freedom bill on its way to governor’s desk

After more than an hour of debate Thursday, Iowa House lawmakers passed a bill that supporters say would expand protections for religious freedom while those opposed say the bill could lead to discrimination.

The bill, Senate File 2095, is coined the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by proponents of the bill and would require the government to prove it had a compelling interest when pursuing litigation against a party who claims its actions were an expression of religious freedom.

The bill passed on party lines, 61-33, and now heads to the governor’s desk after the Senate passed the bill last Tuesday.

Proponents of the bill say it is necessary to restore the “free exercise” clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that they say has been eroded by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1993. Opponents of the bill say it would allow people to discriminate against LGBTQ+ Iowans and use religion as a defense.

The U.S. Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 and since its enactment in 1993, 23 other states passed similar laws.

Republicans have tried to pass similar bills for years since taking control of a Republican Trifecta — or control of the Iowa House, Senate, and the governor’s office — in 2017.

“Iowans should be free to live and work, according to their faith without fear of being unjustly punished by the government,” Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, who ran the bill, said. “This legislation … guarantees, only that everyone gets a fair day in court when the government intrudes on one of our most sacred freedoms.”

Democrats say the bill could have a chilling effect on LGBTQ+ Iowans, allowing people to cite their religious beliefs to deny service.

“This bill weaponizes religious beliefs to justify discrimination and it opens the door here in Iowa for incredible harm to our LGBTQ community, to women, to minorities, and the list goes on,” Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, said. “This is not what religion is supposed to be doing.”

Democrats and business groups said the bill could also worsen Iowa’s recruiting shortfalls.

Lobbyists registered against the bill include the Krause Group, the Technology Association of Iowa, Principal Financial Group, and the Iowa Chamber Alliance.

“This isn’t good for business because what this does, is it allows government interference in private business,” Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said. “It limits who people can hire, it allows people to circumvent decisions that are made in the business based on religious beliefs and it can target business.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds applauded the passage of the bill.

“The right of religious freedom is endowed upon us by our creator — not government,” Reynolds said in a news release. “Our founders recognized this principle, and today the Iowa House took a step forward to protect it. Twenty-three states around the country, with both Republican and Democrat governors, have passed similar laws. Now, it’s Iowa’s turn.”

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