What kind of state are we? That’s the question I and many of my friends, neighbors and colleagues are asking as we watch this session of the Iowa Legislature unfold.
Two bills are moving through the Iowa Legislature that will help answer that question.
• Senate File 240/House File 258, often referred to as the “religious freedom” bill. The bill would give additional legal protections to those who justify their actions based on their religious beliefs. Those who support the law say that it protects their freedom to practice their religion and guards against government intrusion into their lives.
Those who oppose the bill — and that includes me — believe that the bill is not a religious freedom bill; it’s a freedom to discriminate bill. It would enable Iowa businesses to refuse to serve those they don’t like or agree with. It would send the message that Iowa is a place where some are welcome and some aren’t. It’s a bad bill that legalizes intolerance and injustice.
Thankfully, a large number and a diverse group of businesses, organizations and advocates have signed up to oppose the bill. The only ones supporting the bill are religious groups — the Family Leader and the Iowa Catholic Conference.
• Senate File 237/House Study Bill 110, a bill said to “modernize” the selections of judges in Iowa, would give more power to elected officials to nominate individuals who would serve on Iowa high courts.
Those who support the legislation say various things, depending on the audience. In public, they often say that the change will bring more accountability and transparency to the process, and lessen the role that private attorneys play. In private, and inside the Capitol to friendly audiences, they admit that the change they seek is to bring the courts in line, to stop the ability of the court to make decisions that legislators don’t like.
Those who oppose the legislation — and that again includes me — believe this is a power grab on the part of elected officials who want to exert control over a separate, coequal branch of government.
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I’ve been lobbying at the Iowa Capitol for over a decade. I see and hear things that the public doesn’t. And one thing I’m sure of — the motivation behind this bill is not to make our courts better, it’s to make our courts compliant.
Republican legislators and the conservative religious groups that prod them are miffed about decisions made by Iowa courts related to abortion and same-sex marriage. Since these elected officials can’t control the decisions made by the courts, they are trying a new tactic — to control the nomination process so they can get people on the courts who will think the way they think, and who will make decisions they will approve of.
It’s a bad bill. It puts more partisan politics into our court system. It makes the courts less independent and will chip away at their ability to do their job — to be a check on the decisions of the Executive and Legislative branches. It will take Iowa backward.
Thankfully, this bill is also opposed by a long list of organizations and advocates.
It’s sad that these two bills have been introduced. It’s maddening that they are getting serious attention. It will be a travesty and a tragedy if they get passed by the legislature.
What kind of state are we?
My hope is that we will continue to strive to be a common sense and welcoming state; a state that views and treats everyone as equal with zero tolerance for discrimination. A state that respects differences of backgrounds and beliefs. A state that reveres its Constitution and the roles of the three branches of government. And a state that understands that there is a difference between what politicians want and what judges should allow.
• John Hale is co-owner of The Hale Group, an Ankeny-based consulting, advocacy and communications firm. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.