Iowa, Utah advance ‘RFRA’ bills during spring legislative sessions

by | Feb 8, 2024

There are 25 states with a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) law, and another handful of states have similar language in their state constitutions. Now, legislatures in Utah and Iowa are poised to join the list.

RFRA is a federal law that provides courts with a framework for adjudicating disputes that arise when a person’s religious liberty is substantially burdened by a government action. The law requires the government to establish a compelling interest justifying the burden and to demonstrate that there is no other, less restrictive way of achieving that interest. The law has been in place and applied to the federal government for 30 years.

Following its passage, several states began enacting similar laws to apply to state and local government action, with varying degrees of fidelity to the federal RFRA model. In 2023, West Virginia became the 25th state to pass a RFRA law. There, in addition to the federal RFRA language, West Virginia’s version – in an apparent response to COVID-era disputes over church closings – also includes provisions barring the state from treating religious conduct “more restrictively than any conduct of reasonably comparable risk” or “more restrictively than comparable conduct because of alleged economic need or benefit.” Another provision unique to West Virginia’s law states that it cannot be used to defend those charged with violating state law criminalizing abortion, an apparent response to lawsuits filed under RFRA by plaintiffs who argue there is a religious freedom right to an abortion.

Which states might be next?

The Utah Senate is set to consider a state RFRA that more closely aligns with the federal version. SB 150 passed unanimously out of committee. The bill’s sponsor removed anti-abortion language similar to West Virginia’s, saying he’s “not trying to wade into the abortion issue with this.” The Utah version also lacks the comparable risk and economic need provisions that were passed in West Virginia. SB 150 is expected to pass the legislature this year despite concerns raised by opponents. From a recent report:

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Ellie Menlove, legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said even though the ACLU of Utah supports Weiler’s efforts to “protect the right of religious exercise” for Utahns, the group is concerned that it could result in “inadvertent consequences and result in discrimination.”

“In practice, the law could allow individuals to claim their religious beliefs (and) give them the right to ignore laws including nondiscrimination, child abuse and domestic violence laws,” Menlove said.

Meanwhile in Iowa, companion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that would enact language similar to the federal RFRA. Similar efforts in the past have failed in Iowa, in part due to opposition from pro-business advocates concerned that the law would “enable discrimination.”

Stay tuned as these bills make their way through their respective legislatures. For more about the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, BJC’s Respecting Religion podcast discussed the law on its 30th anniversary. You can listen to that episode here.