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This is a bill that has traction in the House and in the Senate and I hope it gains passage before the legislative session ends. We have seen a large uptick in government violating citizens’ and churches’ religious freedom across the states over the past several years, particularly where the Christian faith is concerned. Churches were closed during COVID while businesses were open. Here in Iowa a couple in Grimes lost their business and a Christian student group at the University of Iowa had to fight a lawsuit over their on-campus student organization designation. An Iowa State University Professor disallowed expression of religious-based viewpoints and the list goes on and on. This bill is intended to address that.

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14th Amendment Equal Protection:  This bill says that religious activity cannot be treated by the state more restrictively than comparable secular conduct that is just as risky or because of a supposed economic need. In other words, government can’t shut down churches if it is leaving businesses, non-profits, or other establishments and venues open. This is unequal treatment by the law in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. As you know, in a number of states during the COVID emergency, churches were closed while some businesses or services remained open. If any other business, non-profit or establishment is allowed to remain open, then churches and their activities should be allowed to remain open. 

This does not prevent the government from protecting the public through neutral health and safety requirements, but does ensure that religious organizations are not targeted for worse treatment in the name of public health. Even in a pandemic the Constitution cannot be forgotten. The government already requires certain building codes and fire codes be observed by businesses and church alike. These codes are fine as they are neutral and everyone must abide by them. 

1st Amendment Freedom of Religion:  This bill also prohibits the government from violating a person’s 1st Amendment right to free exercise of religion, unless the government can demonstrate that doing so:  1) furthers a compelling government interest and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling government interest. It is called the “Compelling Interest Test”. This is the standard the government must meet before it can interfere with a person’s free exercise of religion under the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

During the recent COVID-19 public health disaster emergency, government orders closed churches arbitrarily, without meeting this standard. The “Compelling Interest Test” is the highest legal standard and it is applied when a court considers a case involving the violation of fundamental rights. The 1st Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is considered a fundamental right as are all the rights in the Bill of Rights.

By adopting this standard, states can provide clear guidelines to courts and the executive branch, requiring them to consider the importance of religion when enacting measures in times of emergencies. In America we highly prize our 1st Amendment freedom of religion, as it was one of the most important freedoms in the founding of our nation. Religious organizations must bear the brunt of costly litigation if guidance isn’t clear in state law. 

Background: The Supreme Court issued a ruling in 1990 that made it easier for the government to infringe on religious liberty. In response to this ruling, in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill restoring the “Compelling Interest Test” standard for religious freedom cases. The bill received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and the Senate. At its signing Vice President Al Gore said, “This is something that every American can support.” This act returned the courts to the standard that had been in place for decades that the government would have to meet before it could interfere with a person’s free exercise of religion. 

In 1997, the United States Supreme Court determined that this law did not apply to the states, but only to the federal government and said that states would need to pass their own. After that ruling, many states did so.  As of today, 31 states have this law in place through either it passing the legislature or it being established in their courts through case law.

What this Law Has Done & Will Do in Iowa:  This legislation aims to flesh out the meaning of the 1st Amendment by balancing the right of the people to practice their faith against the interest of the government. It gives the courts a tried-and-true balancing test for weighing a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs against legitimate government interests. It does not decide which side will win. But it will give people with sincerely held religious beliefs a fair hearing against intrusive government regulation burdening their religious practice. The “Compelling Interest” test is an impartial referee that equalizes the playing field and reduces the power of government over the lives and the minds of citizens. It doesn’t pre-determine winners and losers but ensures that freedom gets a fair hearing.

A review of case law on the free exercise of religion going back decades clearly shows its benefit to people of all faiths, not just the Christian faith, as they seek to protect their beliefs and consciences in the face of ever more intrusive government. This standard has been proven to winnow out those using religion as a pretext to escape having to follow general laws. It does not apply to disputes between individuals unless government action is involved. 

Here are a couple examples of how this law has been used. In 2014, a unanimous Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the seizure of eagle feathers from Native American religious leader, Robert Soto, was a violation of Soto’s rights under this law.  Additionally, in 2012 the “Compelling Interest” standard in Pennsylvania ensured a group of churches were able to continue feeding the homeless in a city park.  A court determined that the church program was an exercise of religion and a law banning feeding of more than 3 people in a city park unduly infringed upon the churches’ religious freedom. 

Objections:  Some are saying this bill is a “license to discriminate” and that is simply not true. The federal and many states’ “Compelling Interest”  laws have been on the books for many years and have never been used to undermine anti-discrimination laws in this country. When asked, opponents of this law cannot cite any examples of where it has been abused.

Disputes cropping up all across the country and in Iowa as well highlight the need for this legislation in our state. We have real people whose freedoms and livelihoods have been threatened. These people are not discriminating against anyone in conducting their businesses and indeed have not been doing so. But when it comes to an arrangement requiring a business to affirm, participate in, or celebrate an activity/event/idea that violates their faith or that they are morally opposed to they should not be required by government to do that. 

This has nothing to do with any type of person or the characteristic of a person. These businesses have had no problem with selling goods and services to anyone as long as it does not involve an activity that violates their faith. This law does not allow a business to deny services to someone because of their race, color, sex, ethnicity, creed, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age or disability. It does not undermine fairness and equality. Instead it preserves it. Surrendering your faith should never be the price of doing business. 

This bill ensures every Iowan, regardless of religion, politics, class, or how they identify receives a fair hearing when government action seeks to force that person to violate their religious beliefs.

Concluding Comments:  One side in this debate believes that Americans should have more freedom and the government shouldn’t be able to punish citizens for exercising their freedom. The other side in this debate wants government to have more power and to be able to punish citizens for merely exercising their basic freedoms.

Iowa does not have the “Compelling Interest” test established in our law and we need one. As Iowans we need to reinforce our first and most basic freedom, the first one in the Bill of Rights, our First Amendment protection of religious liberty. Without this common-sense protection of our conscience with respect to faith no other freedom is safe. What limits would there then be to what government can control if even your most basic freedom, that of your conscience, is not protected?

It’s not just what you believe in your head. A citizen can hold any belief they want in between their ears. That “freedom” exists in totalitarian countries like North Korea. But one of the many things that makes America exceptional and is one of its contributions to the world is its protection of the free exercise of your faith, that is, the freedom to live out your religious beliefs in your day-to-day life, not just in your head or in one hour in church on Sunday. Our Founders believed this was a God-given right that no government could take away. Our nation was founded on this right by people who were searching for a place where they could have religious liberty. It’s what our Founders handed down to us and as Iowans we prize this freedom and we should never let it go!

Author: Sandy Salmon

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