Iowa employers, religious leaders clash over religious freedom bill

Downtown Des Moines (Photo by Perry Beeman, Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Representatives of some of Iowa’s major employers squared off against religious conservative advocates for the third straight year over legislation to replicate federal religious freedom language in Iowa law.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act sets a higher court standard for consideration of cases in which government is alleged to burden a person’s exercise of religion. The government would need to show that it had a compelling interest in burdening a person’s religious exercise and that it was using the least restrictive means possible.

During a Senate subcommittee meeting on Senate File 508, Republican senators and conservative religious advocates pointed out that the federal law was enacted in 1993 by President Bill Clinton with broad, bipartisan support.

Chuck Hurley of Family Leader ironically noted the 1990s support of the federal act by “such intolerant people as Ted Kennedy, as a co-sponsor, Joe Biden, Barack Obama voted twice in the Illinois Senate for this intolerant act, we had Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and the list goes on.”

But business leaders say the measure would send the message that Iowa is not welcoming, especially to LGBT people, and that would hurt their ability to recruit employees and attract tourism and events.

Amy Friedrich, president of U.S. Insurance Solutions with Principal Financial Group, said her company worked to include “gender identity” among other protected classes in the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

“Iowa’s Civil Rights Act assists Principal in recruiting and retaining a diverse and creative workforce from across the country and across the world.  Senate File 508 would enable discrimination. We think it would empower Iowa business owners to deny services or accommodations on the basis of potential customers’ sexual orientation or gender identity,” Friedrich said.

Dustin Miller, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, said cities in states that have adopted similar legislation, such as Indianapolis and Charlotte, N.C., have seen a “sharp drop in conventions and other business.”

He said Indiana estimated a $250 million impact and an initial $60 million impact from initial convention traffic going elsewhere after it enacted its religious freedom law.

Other major Iowa employers and national corporations including Wellmark, Apple Inc., Meredith Corp., the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and Facebook have also registered against the bill.

Religious advocates said it would protect people like health care workers with a religious objection to performing abortions or people with wedding-related businesses who feel it is against their religion to perform services for same-sex weddings.

“This is not a license to discriminate,” Tom Chapman, director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, said. “It simply gives people and institutions an argument in court.”

Tamara Scott of the Concerned Women for America cited a highly publicized case of a Grimes couple, Betty and Dick Odgaard, who closed their wedding venue in the face of backlash over their refusal to serve a same-sex couple.  “When we talk about the Odgaards, let’s be honest, it was them who were targeted … for the express purpose of damage and destruction to their livelihood.”

The bill, supported by Republican Sens. Dennis Guth of Klemme and Julian Garrett of Indianola, advances to the Senate Local Government Committee.  Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, opposed the bill. The Senate Local Government Committee approved the bill last year but it did not reach the Senate floor for debate.