Metro Weekly

Iowa Governor Signs Anti-LGBTQ “Religious Freedom” Bill

Opponents say law will give wide latitude to individuals who claim their religious beliefs require them to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds -Photo: Gage Skidmore

Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a “religious freedom” bill that critics say will legitimize instances of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

The “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” passed on a party-line vote in Iowa’s GOP-led Legislature, with all Republican lawmakers voting in favor of it.

Reynolds signed the measure at a private event hosted by The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization opposed to LGBTQ rights. She also sought to justify her actions by claiming those with conservative religious beliefs are a persecuted group. 

“Thirty years ago, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed almost unanimously at the federal level,” she said in a statement. “Since then, religious rights have increasingly come under attack. Today, Iowa enacts a law to protect these unalienable rights — just as 26 other states have done — upholding the ideals that are the very foundation of our country.

The new law took effect immediately upon being signed by Reynolds.

“State action shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that applying the burden to that person’s exercise of religion is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,” it states.

In plain speak, that means that any action by the state — such as Iowa’s 2007 law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity — could be challenged by a person who believes their  “sincerely held religious beliefs” are threatened by the law, such as a non-church wedding venue that refuses to rent out space for same-sex weddings, for example. 

Opponents of the law say that is exactly how courts will interpret the bill, allowing people who simply dislike the idea of LGBTQ visibility to target members of the LGBTQ community. They say it will also be used to discriminate against non-LGBTQ individuals who conservatives view as insufficiently pious or lacking morals.

“This bill opens the door for a business to deny services to an LGBTQ+ patron, a landlord to evict a single mom because she’s not married, for a pharmacist to deny a birth control prescription on religious grounds,” State Rep. Lindsay James (D-Dubuque) said, explaining the myriad ways that the law seeks to prioritize some people’s or groups’ personal beliefs over others who may not hold the same views.

James criticized Reynolds for pandering to conservative interest groups, implying that even the location of the bill signing was carefully selected.

“It’s no surprise the governor signed the bill behind closed doors with the biggest special interest group in Iowa, an organization that wants to ban all abortions, ban gay marriage, and ban books,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, anti-LGBTQ and conservative Christian groups, including the legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom, hailed Reynolds. 

“This law provides a sensible balancing test for courts to use when reviewing government policies that infringe upon the religious freedom rights of Iowans,” Greg Chaufen, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement.

“The law doesn’t determine who will win every disagreement, but it does ensure that every Iowan — regardless of their religious creed or political power — receives a fair hearing when government action forces a person to violate his or her religious beliefs,” Chaufen added.

Opponents of the law say its wording will inherently give wide latitude to those professing to hold certain religious beliefs — even if such beliefs are not genuine, or are simply being used to justify a person doing whatever they want without the threat of state interference.

Courtney Reyes, the executive director of the LGBTQ rights group One Iowa Action, claimed that the law goes far beyond existing protections contained in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which already sufficiently protects religious liberty. 

“We will work tirelessly to amend this law and restore the original intent of the federal RFRA when it was passed: to protect, not to discriminate,” Reyes said. “That’s what the Do No Harm Act does at a federal level, and that is exactly what we intend to do at the state level.”

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