Guest Columnist

Religious freedom loopholes in the Legislature

The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The notion of religious freedom — what it is, what it isn’t and what it should be — is being tested in Iowa.

In April 2017, the Iowa House respected my religious rights when I delivered the first atheistic invocation in that body’s history. The Senate, however, has denied my repeated requests to perform a similar invocation. In so doing, not only is the Senate directly discriminating against me, it is violating the Constitution, which protects all faiths.

In its upcoming session, the Senate faces a stark choice: continue to limit religious freedom or protect it for all Iowans.

My state senator, Craig Johnson, R-Independence, was the first to deprive me of religious equality, denying my request to deliver an invocation, and has since denied me for a second year. During this year’s session, he tried to justify his bigotry with his religion: “I am accountable to my constituents that know me to be a legislator with Christian beliefs.”

I grew up Christian, and the Gospel doesn’t advocate taking away non-Christians’ religious freedom. Despite Johnson’s denial, I sought sponsorship from every senator in order to test what religious freedom in Iowa really means. The verdict: All of them denied me my rights. Many senators explicitly rejected my request out of religious intolerance.

This is unconstitutional. In its 2014 ruling in Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled government invocation policies cannot discriminate against the non-religious any more than they could discriminate against Catholics, Jews or Buddhists. The Iowa Senate’s invocation process fails this test. In order to speak, you must approach your elected official and request sponsorship. Apply to deliver an invocation that doesn’t match their religious persuasion, and your request is denied, scoffed at or just flat-out ignored.

To honor the Constitution’s guarantee of equality, the Senate must allow atheists like me to deliver invocations, or it must do away with them altogether. Some senators, preferring this second option, denied my invocation request in order to voice opposition to mixing church and state. One senator wrote to me, “I do not participate in the morning ceremony. I believe that is pushing one individual’s beliefs onto others that may not have the same viewpoint.”

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Another senator stated, “It is apparent, by their participation, the majority wish to have their show. [...] I will NOT sponsor anyone to take any part in this process.”

So where do we go from here, Iowa? To me, the answer is simple: The Legislature must remedy the prayer process by making it more inclusive. Changing the policy so the application process runs through a non-partisan third party, not legislators, would stop religious discrimination. The only other option is to just scrap the whole process, which would allow lawmakers to focus less on religious differences and more on their legislative duties.

If you agree, please contact your senator and let him or her know that you demand real religious freedom for all. Iowans must be allowed every opportunity to take part in their government, on any level, regardless of their religion or their atheism.

• Justin Scott is Iowa state director for American Atheists.

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