Written by Don Byrd

[UPDATE: The bill passed out of subcommittee after a hearing. Caroline Cummings of CBS2Iowa reports.]

An Iowa Senate Subcommittee is set to vote on a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) proposal, reintroduced after a similar effort fell short last year. RFRA is a federal law that bars the government from actions that substantially burden a person’s exercise of religious freedom, unless it is necessary to further a compelling state interest. (For more, see the BJC’s RFRA Resource page). The federal law, passed in 1993, provides a framework for carefully balancing both the religious freedom rights of persons incidentally burdened as well as the important interests of the government. Several states have passed their own versions of RFRA, though some have altered that careful balance in subtle but potentially significant ways.

The core of the Iowa proposal (Senate File 240 and House File 258) currently reads as follows:

Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to that person’s exercise of religion is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The bill defines “exercise of religion” this way:

“Exercise of religion” means the practice or observance of religion, including any action that is motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.

The Des Moines Register reports that multiple groups have announced opposition to the effort out of concern that it could allow discrimination under the heading of religious freedom. “It’s unclear if there’s enough support” within the legislature to pass the bill.