Religious freedom bill moves forward, despite concern from Iowa businesses

A Senate committee Wednesday voted to move forward that would require courts to use "heightened scrutiny" in cases involving religious liberties and freedom. Critics warn the legislation could open the door for discrimination. (Caroline Cummings).

A bill that would increase protections for religious liberties under Iowa law advanced at the capitol Wednesday, despite grave concern from critics who say it could spur discrimination and hurt Iowa's economy.

The bill would change how Iowa courts look at cases involving religious freedom, requiring them to analyze such cases with "heightened scrutiny" to ensure the state doesn’t “substantially burden” a person’s right to practice their religion.

Critics say this bill, which is aimed at boosting protections for religious freedom in Iowa, could open the door for discrimination.

“This legislation potentially cuts civil rights law," said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames.

Supporters say it further protects religious liberties.

"I think it's important that Iowans are able to live and work every day according to their beliefs. That's one of the basic things that this country was founded on." said Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, who is the bill's manager.

But Democrats on the panel warned of the potentially devastating effects on Iowa’s economy if it becomes law, harking back to testimony from some Iowa businesses in the subcommittee panel last week. Iowa businesses like Principal Financial Group and the Iowa Chamber Alliance oppose it; international businesses like Facebook, Google and Apple have also registered against it.

"We are hearing a very loud orchestra from our business community," said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, mentioned concern that the state could lose hosting the NCAA tournament in 2019 and also echoed business concerns that this bill could make it hard to recruit new workers to the state.

But Guth said he hadn't seen the evidence to support the claim that the legislation would hurt the economy. He stressed the bill is ultimately about protecting citizen's rights live their religious beliefs.

"It protects the rights of citizens from the intrusion of our government on the diversity of thought," Guth said.

Because this bill made it through committee, it survived the "funnel," or the first legislative deadline of the session.

It is unclear at this time whether the bill has the votes to pass on the floor.

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