Senate panel advances bill broadening religious freedom protections


    A bill aimed at protecting religious freedom is moving forward at the statehouse, despite warnings from opponents who say it could open the door to discrimination.

    The proposal would require the courts to weigh cases involving religion with heightened scrutiny so the government can't "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion." If there is a compelling government interest that would infringe on someone's religious practices, advancing that interest must be in the "least restrictive" way possible.

    "It's about respecting everyone's beliefs without coercion," said Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, who introduced the bill. "It seems to me that today's diversity seems to sound a lot like yesterday’s conformity."

    Several religious groups testified Tuesday in favor of the bill, while others warned it could open the door to discrimination against sexual orientation, abilities and race or ethnicity.

    “It really puts up a ‘you’re not welcome in Iowa’ sign to a lot of people," said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. "I think that would be a mistake.”

    Business leaders voiced concern about how a bill like this could harm Iowa's economy and ability to recruit and retain workers in Iowa. State leaders have repeatedly counted a workforce shortage among the most pressing issues facing Iowa.

    "Diversity and inclusion are very important to us for the economic environment in our state, to our mission and to our workforce in order to be the successful company that we are," said Gary Scholten, executive vice president of Principal Financial Group, one of the largest employers in Iowa.

    Other business groups echoed those sentiments, arguing that a bill like this would hold the industry back.

    "It harms our ability to attract and retain community events, business and our ever-most challenging workforce growth. It harms our ability to attract good workforce," said Barbra Solberg of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.

    The bill, which is coined the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" mirroring the federal law, was first introduced last year but ultimately didn't get a floor vote in either chamber.

    21 states have RFRA laws, though some vary from the federal law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

    In 2015, Indiana's religious freedom law signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence garnered national attention, sparking outcry. Lawmakers in that state swiftly made changes to clarify that businesses could not discriminate against people seeking their services.

    Gov. Kim Reynolds said Tuesday she hadn't yet read the bill and declined to voice support, but said she believes you can both protect religious freedoms and prohibit discrimination.

    "There is no reason the two of those can't coexist," Reynolds said.

    The bill advanced out of a subcommittee Tuesday.

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