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Iowa governor signs 'religious freedom restoration act' into law at Christian conservative event

Gov. Kim Reynolds gives the Condition of the State address to members of the Iowa Legislature inside the House Chamber, on Tuesday evening, Jan. 10, 2023, at the Iowa State Capitol, in Des Moines.
Kelsey Kremer/The Register
The Des Moines Register
Gov. Kim Reynolds gives the Condition of the State address to members of the Iowa Legislature inside the House Chamber, on Tuesday evening, Jan. 10, 2023, at the Iowa State Capitol, in Des Moines.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law Tuesday evening that supporters say will prevent state and local government from infringing on Iowans’ religious freedom.

Opponents of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” have said it opens the door to discrimination, especially against LGBTQ Iowans.

Reynolds, a Republican, signed the bill into law at a private event hosted by The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization.

“Thirty years ago, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed almost unanimously at the federal level,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Since then, religious rights have increasingly come under attack. Today, Iowa enacts a law to protect these unalienable rights—just as 26 other states have done—upholding the ideals that are the very foundation of our country.”

The new law took effect immediately when she signed it.

Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, said the law is about weaponizing religion to justify discrimination.

“This bill opens the door for a business to deny services to an LGBTQ+ patron, a landlord to evict a single mom because she’s not married, for a pharmacist to deny a birth control prescription on religious grounds,” she said. “It’s no surprise the governor signed the bill behind closed doors with the biggest special interest group in Iowa, an organization that wants to ban all abortions, ban gay marriage, and ban books.”

The bill passed in the Iowa Legislature in late February. Republicans voted for it, and Democrats voted against it.

The law reads, “State action shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates 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.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian law firm that advocates for banning abortion and limiting LGBTQ rights, released a statement commending Reynolds for signing the law.

“This law provides a sensible balancing test for courts to use when reviewing government policies that infringe upon the religious freedom rights of Iowans,” said Greg Chafuen, an attorney with ADF. “The law doesn’t determine who will win every disagreement, but it does ensure that every Iowan—regardless of their religious creed or political power—receives a fair hearing when government action forces a person to violate his or her religious beliefs.”

Opponents of the law, which include LGBTQ rights advocates and some major business groups, pointed out that religious freedom is already protected as one of the country’s fundamental rights.

Courtney Reyes, executive director of LGBTQ rights groups One Iowa Action, said the law opens the door to people claiming they can decide which laws they will and won’t obey.

“There’s no denying it: this bill is aimed at discriminating against LGBTQ+ Iowans, single parents, people needing reproductive health care services, and many more,” Reyes said. “Supporters of the legislation knew this when they voted down the amendment to prevent discrimination, and the governor knew this when she selected the location of the signing over a month after its passage.”

Reyes said One Iowa Action will work to get the law amended and restore the federal RFRA’s intent to protect, not discriminate.

Copyright 2024 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.

Katarina Sostaric is an Iowa City based reporter covering Eastern Iowa for Iowa Public Radio.