'Religious freedom' law unlikely in Iowa

State's non-discrimination protection 'very robust'

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DES MOINES — One way Rich Eychaner measures Iowa’s progress in the treatment of gay individuals is how often his life is threatened.

“I don’t get nearly the number of death threats I used to get back in the ’70s,” said Eychaner, a prominent Des Moines businessman who has been open about being gay since 1978.

A new law passed in Indiana thrust into the national spotlight the discussion of the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Supporters of the Indiana law said it would protect the religious freedoms of individuals and their businesses. Critics said it would allow businesses to discriminate against gay people, using religious beliefs as a shield. But on Thursday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed revisions that amended that state’s law.

In Iowa, however, which has no such so-called religious freedom law, its laws addressing LGBT rights and protections are considered progressive.

“That’s my sense of it,” said Matt McCoy, a gay state senator from Des Moines. “One of the major steps we took was the 2007 ban on discrimination (of LGBT people). That was the Civil Rights Act. That, obviously, was one of the most progressive civil rights steps that any state could take.”

The Human Rights Campaign, which describes itself as a civil rights organization that works to achieve equality for LGBT individuals, rates Iowa’s laws in its second-highest class, “solidifying equality.” In its State Equality Index, a nationwide report card on states’ LGBT laws, the Human Rights Campaign commends Iowa’s LGBT protections, the recognition of same-sex marriage — which was the result of a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision — and the state’s inclusion of LGBT children in anti-bullying laws, among other measures.

“Iowa has had a strong record of LGBT non-discrimination and support,” said Alison Gill, the senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign who authored the State Equality Index. “(Iowa’s) non-discrimination laws are very robust.”

The report also praises Iowa for laws it does not have, including measures that, according to the Human Rights Campaign, permit discrimination in adoption.

And Iowa does not have a religious freedom law.

It remains unlikely to have one as long as Democrats remain in control of at least one of the three legs of state government — the two legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Such measures are almost exclusively supported by conservative Republicans and opposed by Democrats.

In 2009, 21 Iowa House members introduced the Religious Conscience Protection Act. The bill was similar to Indiana’s, but did not go nearly as far. The Iowa bill mostly was specific to marriage ceremonies: It permitted businesses to refuse to provide services to ceremonies if the business owner’s religious beliefs conflicted with the marriage.

According to legislative records, the bill never received a committee hearing. A similar bill introduced in the Iowa Senate experienced a short legislative life as well.

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad last week declined to comment on the Indiana law, but said Iowa has a history of being “open and fair.”

“I believe that everybody should be treated with respect and dignity,” Branstad said.

McCoy is disappointed in a few other LGBT laws Iowa lacks, including one he advocated for this session. He hoped for passage of a bill that would ban conversion therapy, a practice of treatments with the goal of changing a gay person’s sexual preference.

“That would have been a step forward,” McCoy said. “I think that’s my disappointment coming out of this session.”

McCoy and Eychaner said Iowa has become a state that is largely accepting of LGBT individuals, particularly in the state’s bigger cities. They caution, however, that work still remains, especially in the state’s more rural areas.

“Iowa is noted for humble people, honesty, welcoming communities, and I think that’s generally true” for LGBT individuals, Eychaner said. “But I also think around the edges of that, if you don’t look like everybody else, if you don’t love like everybody else, some people still take offense to that.”

McCoy describes Iowa as having “pockets of equality.”

“There are places where you’re going to be accepted, you’re going to be welcomed and affirmed,” McCoy said. “And there are places where you are unwelcome and you will be rejected as a result of your sexual orientation. So we have a lot of work to do.”

Donna Red Wing, a gay woman and the executive director of the LGBT equality advocacy group One Iowa, agreed. She said while Iowa’s LGBT laws are very good and the state does “really well” accepting LGBT people, there remains room for improvement.

“The work now has to be around changing hearts and minds, around a cultural change,” Red Wing said.

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