DES MOINES — Individuals and businesses in Iowa would be granted broader legal protection to take actions guided by their religious beliefs under a bill approved Thursday by a Senate subcommittee.
The bill was advanced to the full Senate Local Government Committee for consideration on a 2-1 vote, despite concerns voiced by businesses struggling to attract a diverse and inclusive workforce.
Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, said Senate File 508, known as the religious freedom restoration act, provides that government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless there is a compelling government interest and restrictions are implemented in the least restrictive manner.
“Today, we are in an environment that is increasingly hostile to religious freedom,” said Guth, in urging Iowa to join the 21 states that already have adopted a standard that is currently federal law. Another 10 states have the provision as an outcome of legal rulings.
“This is not a license to discriminate,” said Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference.
If passed in the Legislature and signed into law, the bill would require courts to give heightened scrutiny to any legal claim brought against an individual who claims their actions were guided by their religion.
Thursday’s discussion attracted faith-based organizations that support the measure, while a number of business, civil rights and other groups opposed it.
Critics said the proposal would give individuals and businesses license to discriminate while using their religion as a legal shield.
Opponents also contended current law already provides sufficient protections against religious discrimination.
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“As Iowans, we have always been extremely welcoming to minorities and marginalized groups,” said Dustin Miller, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, who expressed concern that the bill would send the wrong message in a global marketplace at a time when Iowa is focused on economic and population growth.
Brian Waller, president of the Iowa Technology Association, said his industry is Iowa’s “economic engine” right now, with more than 92,000 high-wage jobs and 34,000 open positions.
“We feel strongly that having Iowa become a place that’s known for intolerance is dangerous for Iowa’s technology industry,” he said. “We can’t afford to give Iowans reasons to feel unwelcome.”
However, subcommittee member Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said he did not believe the arguments by business groups “hold water” because states with religious freedom laws are thriving economically.
Kelly Shackelford of the First Liberty Institute said a third of the economy is religious-based organizations and businesses.
“Since when did the people of Iowa decide that their freedoms were for sale?” said Shackelford, a lawyer who argues religious-freedom cases. “I just don’t think that this is a good argument for lessening freedoms of the people of the state.”
But representatives of large companies, such as Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group, warned passage of the religious-freedom legislation would have a “chilling effect” on Iowa companies that conduct international business and recruit skilled workers to Iowa.
Burlington Baptist minister Brad Cranston countered that 21 states have similar laws on the books and the federal standards date back to legislation signed by President Bill Clinton, which “doesn’t pick winners and losers” but provides guidelines to the courts in cases where people say they are following the dictates of their faith.
“Government should not have unchecked power to intrude on Iowans’ freedom,” said Cranston, who joined Chuck Hurley of the Family Leader in accusing opponents of using “scare tactics in concocting hypothetical scenarios” and a “very inaccurate twisting of what we’re talking about.”
“What the (religious freedom restoration act) is talking about is having a level playing field — not discrimination but level,” Hurley said. “For whatever reason, this bill has gotten twisted, and we need to untwist it.”