DES MOINES, Iowa – During the Iowa Senate subcommittee on SF 436 on Monday, religious groups supported a bill that model’s the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In contrast, business groups and LGBT lobbyists opposed.
Brad Cranston, the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Burlington, Iowa, and founder of Iowa Baptists for Biblical Values, spoke in favor of the bill.
“Religious liberty has stood as the cornerstone of our nation going all the way back to its founding by the pilgrims in 1620. And in that same sacred tradition enshrined in the First Amendment, every Iowan should be free to worship and live according to their sincerely held beliefs. No one should be forced to conduct their lives or their livelihood in such a way that their own conscience is violated every time they walk into their school, their business or their place of employment,” he said.
Cranston said the bill does not pick winners and losers. “It just gives a person their day in court,” he said.
He pointed out that Dick and Betty Odgaard didn’t get their day in court. The Odgaards owned an art gallery, flower shop, and cafe housed in a former church building in Grimes, a popular wedding venue. In 2013, a complaint was filed against them when they refused to host a same-sex wedding ceremony because it violated their religious conscience. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission found against the Odgaards. In a settlement, they agreed to pay $5000 and not discriminate. The Odgaards stopped providing wedding services to prevent additional discrimination suits and later had to close their business due to the lost revenue.
Cranston said the Odgaards were targeted by a same-sex couple who were already married.
“It was all a setup to destroy the lives and livelihoods of two of the kindest, most considerate most loving people you could ever have the privilege of meeting,” he added.
Keenan Crow with One Iowa Action, an LGBT advocacy group, opposed the bill quoting the late Justice Antonin Scalia from his majority opinion in Employment v. Smith, who said a strict scrutiny standard for religious freedom was unworkable. That 1990 Supreme Court decision, critics said, severely weakened the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was overwhelmingly passed and signed into law by President Bill Clinton to respond to that decision.
“We know what happens when these laws are passed. We know the kinds of suits we see filed, and we know that it encourages bad actors to test the limits of these provisions,” he added.
“If this proposal advances, it will open the floodgates to legal chaos and encourage bad actors to engage in harmful behavior while using their beliefs as a legal shield. We ask you to reject this legislation for the good of our children, our safety, and our economy,” Crow added.
A.J. Potter, the pastor of Pleasantville Baptist Church in Pleasantville, spoke in favor of the bill stating that people of faith need to have protection to live according to their conscience and have legal recourse if the state burdens that conscience. He pointed out that the federal RFRA bill does not protect Iowans when the state of Iowa acts against their religious liberty interests.
Scott Sundstrom representing Wellmark Blue Cross, Blue Shield, opposed the bill.
“I certainly appreciate that expression of religious faith is one of the core values in our country. We also think as a company, one of the core values of our company is inclusion and diversity. And we do have concerns that this bill would allow for discrimination in the state that is in conflict with our core values as a company and also could potentially be a detriment to recruiting workforce,” he said.
Lance Kinzer, with the 1st Amendment Partnership, supported the bill and said it doesn’t need to be controversial.
“It seems like a very term RFRA in recent years almost denotes political controversy in and of itself. And we just think that’s really unfortunate for a variety of reasons and particularly don’t think it needs to be controversial in Iowa. Two main reasons, number one, because Iowa has a great judicial system with judges who can be trusted to apply the reference standard fairly. And number two, because Iowa has a strong underlying civil rights law that already adjudicates many of the issues that those who are concerned about RFRA think may pose problems down the line,” he said.
Kinzer said that Scalia was wrong.
“His concern that the strict scrutiny standard was unworkable has not proven to be the case, either at the federal level, where RFRA was quickly passed in a bipartisan basis or in the many states that have passed a state RFRA or have their own court systems that have adopted essentially the strict scrutiny standard of RFFA,” he said pointing out that states like Connecticut and Illinois, states friendly to LGBT persons, also have RFRA as law.
Laura Hessberg representing the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the bill is unnecessary and thinks it could “become a vehicle to enable discrimination.”
“This exemption proposal would undermine our laws by allowing people to claim religious beliefs give them the right to decide which laws they would follow,” she said.
She said actions like that “disproportionately (impact) the most marginalized.”
“Relationship violence does not discriminate. It’s a public health crisis that occurs regardless of gender, race, economic immigration, or education status. But young women, LGBTQ women, and women in communities of color experienced the highest prevalence,” Hessberg added.
Chuck Hurley, with The FAMiLY Leader, pointed out that the last the Iowa Legislature considered RFRA, a company threatened to move to Illinois.
“Illinois already has RFRA. And I think it’s just so specious to say that companies won’t do business in a state that passes RFRA when they’re doing phenomenal business in many states that have RFRA. They’re doing business in the United States of America, which has RFRA,” he stated.
Hurley pointed out that those who oppose RFRA have engaged in intimidation and bullying, and he commended state legislators who stand up to it. He said he hoped that the two sides could “reduce the temperature” and “coexist in love and respect.”
He stated that he wants to see the First Amendment do what it was designed to do, let people believe and act on their most cherished convictions without the state coming in to penalize them as they did with the Odgaards.
“Let’s try to have a truly fair court system when it comes to people of conscience, being bullied by their government and being told they can’t do or believe what they really believe,” Hurley concluded.
Joe Murphy with the Iowa Business Council opposed the bill saying it would prevent economic and population growth in the state.
“We need to be doing everything we can to promote Iowa as a welcoming and inclusive place for all individuals. Our economic future, quite literally depends on that,” he said.
Josh Kent, an assistant pastor at First Baptist Church of Urbandale, spoke in support of the bill, pointed out that the opposition only brought hypotheticals, not facts, to the conversation. He said the state should expand freedom, not muzzle voices.
Amy Frederick, the president of U.S. insurance solutions with Principal Financial Group, opposed the bill.
“Iowa’s Civil Rights Act assists Principal in recruiting and retaining a diverse and creative workforce from across the country and the world. Senate File 436 would enable discrimination. It would empower Iowa business owners to deny services or accommodations, based on a potential customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said.
Matt Sharp, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, the nation’s largest legal advocacy organization dedicated to defending religious freedom, spoke in support of the bill.
“For many people of faith, every aspect of their life has eternal consequences. The Muslim believes it’s a deep dishonor to the Prophet Muhammad to shave his beard. The Jewish Baker forced to open on Saturdays would openly defy the Torah’s command to remember it as a day of rest. The Catholic nun mandated to pay for abortion-inducing drugs with trample underfoot the sanctity of human life, and the grandmother florist told she must design the floral arrangement for a good friend’s same-sex wedding would offend the sacred institution established by God,” he explained.
“We may not share all of these beliefs. But the real test of liberty is what happens when we disagree. Disagreement is not discrimination, and it should never be treated as such. Nor should disagreement provide a justification to shut the doors of the justice system to minority beliefs simply because the winds of societal acceptance have shifted directions. Because one day, the winds could change again, and it could be your or my religious practices facing government scorn and restriction,” Sharp said.
He pointed out a study conducted by Lucien Dhooge, a law professor at Georgia Tech University, that found religious persons rarely win lawsuits under RFRA, only around 16 to 17 percent.
“What that shows us is that courts are able to dismiss the frivolous claims, they’re able to dismiss where the government burden is not a substantial burden, or where the government has a compelling interest that overrides the free exercise claims. But what’s important is even for those 80 percent of people that lost, they had a day in court, they had the opportunity to go before a judge and to make their case,” Sharp said.
Michaela Wilson, an LGBT employee at Meredith Corporation, opposed the bill and said, “We all agree that freedom of religion is important, and we want that to be protected. However, we feel this is the wrong implementation of that freedom of religion is already protected by the First Amendment. And this proposed law is unnecessarily extremely broad and ripe for abuse.”
Tom Chapman, representing the Iowa Catholic Conference, supported the bill. “I don’t think it allows anybody really to do anything. It doesn’t grant any new rights. It simply gives persons an argument in court about the actions of government. It’s a boundary on government. So we believe that respect for religion helps ensure respect for all of our other freedoms as well,” he said.
Connie Ryan with the Iowa Interfaith Alliance opposed the bill, “The bill would sanction by law the right for someone to legally discriminate against another person utilizing their sincerely held personal religious beliefs,”she said.
Also speaking in favor of the bill was Jeremy Dice with the First Liberty Institute and Danny Carroll with The FAMiLY Leader. Dustin Miller with the Greater Des Moines Partnership and Brian Waller with the Technology Association of Iowa also spoke in opposition.
The subcommittee split two to one in favor of sending the bill to the committee. State Senators Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, and Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, supported the bill. State Senator Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, opposed it. The bill needs to pass out of the Iowa Senate State Government Committee this week to remain viable for the session.
Listen to the subcommittee below: