Religious freedom bill advances out of Iowa Senate Subcommittee

Businesses differ over effect

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Business groups argued the pros and cons of legislation that cleared a Senate subcommittee Monday and that backers say is designed to bring Iowa in line with federal standards in providing them religious-freedom protections.

Members of a Senate Local Government subcommittee voted 2-1 to approve a bill that would provide a claim or defense to a person whose exercise of freedom is substantially burdened by government action. Senate Study Bill 3171 could create a “strict scrutiny test” for the courts to use in such cases.

Small business owners Dick and Betty Odgaard said current state law provided them no protection when a gay couple asked them to make their facilities available for a same-sex wedding and reception that went counter to their religious beliefs.

“It’s not to take rights or freedom away from anybody,” Dick Odegart told the panel. “It’s to restore ours. Our system is very tilted.”

However, representatives of large companies, such as Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group, warned passage of the religious-freedom legislation would have a “chilling effect” on Iowa companies that conduct international business and to recruit skilled workers to Iowa.

In addition, Des Moines business leaders worried legislative action could jeopardize the city’s ability to qualify as a 2019 NCAA regional basketball site or land other major conventions.

“States that have gone down this road have had economic duress,” said John Stineman, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance.

But Burlington Baptist minister Brad Cranston said 21 states have similar laws on the books and the federal standards date back to legislation signed by President Bill Clinton that “doesn’t pick winners and losers” but merely provides guidelines to the courts in cases in which people follow the dictates of their faith.

“This argument is worth having if we’re going to preserve our way of life,” said Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, in supporting the measure. But Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, advised a go-slow approach to altering Iowa civil rights statutes that he said have worked effectively for years.

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