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Religious Freedom Bill Moves Forward In Iowa Senate

John Pemble
IPR file

Republicans in the Iowa Senate are advancing a religious freedom bill that opponents say would weaken civil rights protections. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SF 508) would raise the legal threshold to enforce a state or local law when a person says it violates their faith.

Supporters at a subcommittee meeting Thursday said the legislature should join 21 other states and the federal government, which have passed similar measures.

“Iowans should be free to live and work according to their faith without fear of being punished by their government,” said Brad Cranston of Iowa Baptists for Biblical Values. “This law simply ensures that freedom gets a fair hearing in court.”

Cranston said people who operate small businesses based on their religious values are vulnerable to lawsuits and that RFRA would provide them with legal protection. Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said he supports the proposal as a way to change the precedent used in Iowa courts.

“Passing this law doesn’t guarantee any particular result in a particular case. It just sets a standard the courts would adhere to,” Garrett said.

But opponents of the bill said it would provide a legal defense for business owners to refuse customers based on their race or sexual orientation.

“Already, right now, people can practice their faith in their religious community,” said ACLU of Iowa policy director Daniel Zeno. "What people cannot do is open a business and say ‘We’re not going to serve LGBTQ people. We’re not going to serve black people.’ That’s what this would allow to happen.”

Representatives from some of the state’s largest corporations spoke against the bill saying it could give the state a reputation of intolerance that would hurt their businesses. Principal Financial, Wellmark, Meredith Corporation, Facebook and Apple registered in opposition to the bill along with business groups including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and the Iowa Chamber Alliance.

Entrepreneur Kate Lyon of Pocahontas said if the bill passed, it would become harder to hire out-of-state workers who might view Iowa as discriminatory. 

“This bill kills our ability to hire and recruit into the state of Iowa,” Lyon said. “Because of this legislation and others similar to it, we have put a freeze on recruiting skilled talent into the state.”

The bill advanced on a 2-1 vote to the full Senate Local Government committee. No action has been taken on a companion bill in the Iowa House.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa