Senate Republicans pass bill that could allow discrimination on religious grounds

Sen. Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig) is the primary sponsor of the Iowa Senate's Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill that critics argue could allow discrimination on religious grounds.

By Ty Rushing

February 20, 2024

Sen. Liz Bennett (D-Cedar Rapids)—Iowa’s only out LGBTQ senator—is fed up with seeing queer Iowans continue to be attacked by her Republican colleagues.  

“I am sick and tired of my community being the target of mean-spirited discriminatory bills written by Republican politicians,” she said during a Tuesday Iowa Senate debate over a bill she and others argue is a way to use religion as a shield for discrimination.

“Instead of prioritizing writing bills to help Iowans find housing, good jobs, health care, or child care, Iowa Republicans are writing laws to hurt people.”

SF 2095 passed 31-16 in a party-line vote with all Republicans for it and all Democrats opposed. 

The bill is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFFA). The legislation “prohibits a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion.” A government body found in violation could face legal consequences, including paying for a plaintiff’s monetary damages, court costs, and legal fees.

Critics of RFFA say this legislation would allow medical providers to deny access to abortion or birth control under religious grounds and would circumvent civil rights protections for LGBTQ Iowans, as well as religious and ethnic minorities.

Sen. Janice Weiner (D-Iowa City) introduced an amendment that would explicitly state the legislation wouldn’t provide protection for discrimination and would comply with the Iowa Civil Rights, the US Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and other protective legal measures.

Weiner noted when the federal RFFA law was passed in 1993, it was to protect small minority religious groups and it passed with bipartisan support and had a broad coalition of supporters, but many former supporters have since changed their views on the law.

“The reason is that individuals and businesses have since distorted both the federal and subsequent state RFFAs into a blank check to discriminate and impose their religious beliefs on others,” Weiner said. “This ‘Do No Harm’ amendment would fix that.”

The amendment failed in a 31-16 party-line vote.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott (D-West Des Moines), a Lutheran minister who preaches on most weekends, said people use legislation such as this to justify bad behavior.

“When I look at the scriptures of my religion, I don’t see the judgment or exclusion that is often espoused as religious belief. I can’t find any teaching that tells us to put money before people or personal gain before the welfare of others,” Trone Garriott said.

“I have never read a teaching of Jesus to encourage using the vulnerable, those who are different—the stranger, the outcast, the poor—as targets to score political points, and yet, I see so many self-professed people of faith doing these things all the time.”   

Sen. Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig) introduced the bill and served as floor manager. He pushed back on accusations that the intent of this legislation is to legalize discrimination using religion and said the bill is intended to protect people’s right to worship without government interference.

“During the COVID overreaction, I literally couldn’t go to my church,” Schultz said. “I couldn’t. We had to make special provisions to have communion. We saw that as a gross infringement of First Amendment protections for practicing our religion.”

In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, Gov. Kim Reynolds, also a Republican, barred “spiritual or religious” gatherings of more than 10 people in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Last year, Schultz was the floor manager for a bill that gave Reynolds’ office even more power over the state government.

Correction: A previous version of the story said that Bennett was Iowa’s only out LGBTQ legislator, but she is the only out Iowa Senator. There are LGBTQ members of the Iowa House.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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