Written by Don Byrd

[UPDATE 2/14: Iowa’s Senate Local Government Committee has voted 7-4 on a party line to advance state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) legislation to the full state senate for a vote.]

[UPDATE 2/13: An Iowa Senate subcommittee voted 2-1 to send the RFRA bill to the full Senate Local Government Committee. The DesMoines Register reports that the measure passed despite opposition from business leaders concerned the legislation could paint a picture of the state as unwelcoming, creating an “economic backlash.”]

Legislation mirroring the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) statute has been introduced in the Iowa Senate. If enacted, Iowa would be the 22nd state to have a RFRA law on the books.

Such laws, generally, bar the government from posing a substantial burden to a person’s religious exercise unless it is necessary to further a compelling government interest. The federal RFRA was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993 supported by a diverse coalition of religious liberty advocates, including the Baptist Joint Committee, and a bi-partisan group of legislators. It was seen as an effective and reasonable means of countering the often unintended impact government action can have on religious observance.

A few years ago, state RFRA proposals were commonplace, and it seemed the number of state RFRA laws might skyrocket. But very few of those proposals were ultimately enacted, in part thanks to controversy over the possibility that such laws might be intended to allow religious objectors to avoid nondiscrimination laws (an argument put forward to some degree both by proponents and opponents of RFRA), and in part because the precise language of many state RFRA proposals seemed to tilt the careful balance achieved by the federal version. As the BJC’s Holly Hollman wrote in a 2016 column, “not all bills with the name ‘RFRA’ have that same balanced standard.”

The current proposal as introduced in the Iowa legislature does incorporates the same “substantial burden” standard as the federal RFRA. One key difference however: the Iowa bill’s definition of “religious exercise” could likely be interpreted as more expansive. While the federal RFRA defines religious exercise as “any exercise of religion…”, the Iowa legislation’s definition is “any action that is motivated bysincerely held religious belief…

In other states attempting to pass RFRA legislation in recent years, we have seen significant changes to the bill leading up to a vote. It remains to be seen what the bill will look like when and if it receives a vote in the full Iowa Senate.

You can read the bill here.

For more on RFRA, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s RFRA Resource page.