DES MOINES, Iowa – An Iowa House subcommittee passed HSB 593, a bill that prohibits state agencies, counties, school districts, and cities from burdening a free exercise of religion, by a 2 to 1 vote on Thursday.
The legislation sponsored by State Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, the Iowa House Judiciary Committee chairman, prohibits governmental agencies from treating religious conduct more restrictively than comparable secular conduct. HSB 593 also requires government entities to demonstrate a compelling governmental interest, and it is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
The bill, echoing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, provides a legal defense for those who believe their religious freedom has been infringed.
Holt told The Iowa Torch that he filed the bill based on his concerns regarding churches being shut down in other states during the pandemic. At the same time, casinos and liquor stores were allowed to continue operating.
“We were blessed to have Governor Reynolds as our governor, but she will not always be an office, and I believe we need those protections in Iowa Code,” he said.
State Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, supported the bill in the subcommittee. “What we’ve seen transpire across the country over the last couple of years should worry all of us. Governors and mayors unfairly targeted houses of worship while allowing casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs to remain open. It’s an unacceptable and egregious abuse of power,” he told The Iowa Torch.
State Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, the other member of the subcommittee voting for the bill, echoed Holt’s and Wheeler’s concern.
“It is a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion and the 14th Amendment equal protection clause for churches to be ordered closed while other businesses or activities remain open. We have seen that happen in states across the country during COVID, and that is why we need this bill. We want to ensure that this does not happen in Iowa in the future. If any other business or activity is allowed to proceed, the churches and their activities should be allowed to proceed,” she told The Iowa Torch.
State Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, voted against the bill. He told The Iowa Torch that the bill is too broad. “The bill is far too broad. If they narrow it to just prohibit disparate treatment against houses of worship vs other businesses I will be fine with it,” he said.
ACLU of Iowa, Iowa Mental Health Planning Council, Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa, One Iowa, and Human Rights Campaign registered opposition against the bill.
Iowa Baptists for Biblical Values, Homeschool Iowa, 1st Amendment Partnership, Iowa Catholic Conference, The FAMiLY Leader, and Iowans for Medical Marijuana registered support for the bill.
Business groups have opposed religious liberty bills in the past, but at publication, business groups registered on the bill are undecided.
Holt noted concerns from the LGBT lobby.
“There are concerns about some of the provisions in the bill as it relates to the LGBT community, and we will listen carefully to their concerns,” he said.