A bill moving through the Iowa House would double-down on constitutionally protected religious rights.
In a Thursday subcommittee meeting, Reps. Skyler Wheeler (R-Orange City), Sandy Salmon (R-Janesville), and Brian Meyer (D-Des Moines) discussed House File 593, a bill that prohibits the state from infringing on a person’s free exercise of religion.
The bill’s language is vague and broad, which was the main topic of conversation during the subcommittee meeting among people who are against it and those who are undecided.
“We have some reservations about the language and the broadness,” said lobbyist Justin Miller for the Iowa Chamber Alliance. “I get worried about creative lawyers and ‘notwithstanding.’ Is that notwithstanding the Civil Rights Act, what does that mean?”
Some saw space for discrimination.
“The language in this bill goes far beyond the concern for the operation of religious institutions, granting broad license to discriminate against others,” said lobbyist Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance Action Fund.
“The bill contains language similar to other religious exemption legislation previously introduced. Freedom of religion protects everyone’s right to practice the religion of their choice or no religion at all so long as they don’t discriminate or harm others. This bill should be rejected because it would undermine this principle.”
In practice, supporters said the main point of the bill is to protect houses of worship—no matter the religion—from being treated differently than businesses.
Supporters cited states such as California where, during the early days of the pandemic, houses of worship were not allowed to hold in-person services. At the same time, some businesses, such as restaurants, remained open, usually through takeout or delivery.
In early April 2020, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds did limit religious gatherings—among others—to no more than 10 people. That rule lasted until the end of the month when the guidance shifted to churches being required to have “reasonable public health measures” such as social distancing and hygiene.
Opponents of the bill said they weren’t bothered by the religious practice intention, but they had concerns about how broadly the bill could be applied to situations outside of that one.
“Religious freedom is something we all agree should be protected and disparate treatment of religious versus secular conduct is obviously unacceptable,” said Keenan Crow, the director of policy and advocacy at One Iowa. “We’re concerned that this opens a legal can of worms across the state with the potential to invalidate all kinds of laws.”
Crow and others who took issue with how broad the last section of the bill is asked that the committee consider re-wording it so it would apply to the narrow concern about religious institutions being treated differently.
Meyer agreed with that solution after establishing that Iowa didn’t face the same issues with houses of worship being closed during the pandemic.
“I have no problem with everyone being treated the same. Would the proponents be okay with just limiting to that,” Meyer said. “This is a very broad bill and I’d be okay with limited conversation about religious institutions being treated differently in unprecedented times or at any time. I don’t like expanding it beyond that.”
Salmon was in full support of the bill. She said it should never be allowed that houses of worship are closed while businesses and schools remain open.
“We have seen that happen at the order of governors in states across the country during the COVID pandemic,” she said. “That’s why we need this bill. We should ensure this does not happen in Iowa.”
“What we’ve seen transpire across the country should worry all of us. Governors and mayors who unfairly targeted houses of worship while allowing casinos, liquor stores, and strip clubs to remain open is unacceptable and is an egregious abuse of power,” Wheeler said.
“We applaud Gov. Reynolds’ handling of the pandemic and she did not unfairly target houses of worship like others did. But this is necessary today because we’re not always going to have a Gov. Reynolds in office.”