Guest Columnist

Persecution in the name of religious freedom at the Iowa Legislature

The Gazette

The House chamber at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines.
The Gazette The House chamber at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines.

As of this writing, an Iowa Senate subcommittee has approved, by a 2-1 vote, a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (Senate File 508) which provides that “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless there is a compelling governmental interest and restrictions are implemented in the least restrictive manner.” What this comes down to is that people who are still unhappy about the Varnum decision for marriage equality are continuing to introduce legislation that weakens its protections.

Eroding LGBTQ Iowans’ rights

Why do people need to persecute minorities who are already persecuted by means of their numbers and the prevailing culture? When Sen. Guth from Klemme says that “we are in an environment that is increasingly hostile to religious freedom” (The Gazette, Feb. 14), what he is saying is that he doesn’t like being in a pluralistic religious environment, where Christianity is only one of many religions, and it doesn’t have the power to discriminate like it used to.

As a member of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, I have had to wrestle with the issues of the minority religions who have nowhere near the numbers or political power of Christianity. How would you like it when you are constantly referred to as a church, but in reality you worship in temple or a synagogue or a mosque? But that is precisely what our Constitution was designed to protect with the First Amendment.

RFRAs were originally understood to be civil rights laws, intended to replace unintentional discrimination against religious minorities. But now they are being increasingly used by religious majorities to impose their beliefs in civil rights cases, such as in the cases of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc. v. Colorado Rights Civil Rights Commission.

But rather than “protecting a set of religious beliefs at the expense of others, religious freedom has been traditionally understood by the framers of the Constitution and by the courts to mean religious freedom for everyone” (“Whose Faith Matters?” The Columbia Law School Law, Rights and Religion Project, p. 71).

I wonder why our Legislature spends so much time on issues related to sex and gender, when our rivers are flooding due to climate change, women are not getting the health care they need in rural areas, immigrants aren’t given the respect they deserve, and felons in Iowa still cannot vote? If we need to get religious about it, perhaps Matthew 25 would give us some guidance: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” But maybe it’s not a matter of religion.

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If it’s only a matter of power, perhaps proponents of this bill will heed the call of companies and organizations to stop making Iowa a place where people don’t want to come to work, companies and organizations such as Principal, the Iowa Chamber Alliance, the Iowa Technology Association, Wellmark, Meredith, Facebook, and Apple. Just ask Vice President Mike Pence how this type of law worked for him when he was Governor of Indiana. Or ask the officials in North Carolina, when their bathroom bill drove companies away from the state. I’m sorry it has to come to power, when morals and civil rights aren’t enough.

I would ask those who are pushing this bill to please stop persecuting minorities who are already persecuted enough, and give their attention to matters that really would make a difference to those of us who live in Iowa.

Charles R. Crawley is past president of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County.

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