For six years, your Iowa Legislature has struggled to address the issue of religious freedom versus the current cultural and technological revolution taking place in America, including Iowa. Everyone is familiar with the well-publicized events when a same-sex couple want to have a ceremony or hire a service in a practicing Christian establishment. But the infringement of religion can cover many other areas in our lives.
SF2095 is an effort to de-escalate these highly charged conflicts and tone down the rhetoric on both sides. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) goes back to 1993 when then President Clinton and a nearly unanimous Congress passed the first RFRA in response to the US Supreme Court weakening long-held religious freedom protections in “Employment Division v. Smith.”
This worked until 1997 when the US Supreme Court struck again in “City of Boerne v. Flores.” I don’t know what the US Supreme Court has against the 1st Amendment in our Bill of Rights, but I detect a pattern. They ruled the federal RFRA of 1993 applied only to federal law, and not state or local laws. The states weren’t having it and began passing RFRA protections of their own as issues arose in each jurisdiction. The first states were Connecticut and Rhode Island. The last two were Montana and South Dakota. In all, 23 states have added RFRA language to their state laws.
RFRA language doesn’t pick winners or losers. It only gives the citizen the opportunity to have their day in court. Once there, the state or local government must prove they have a compelling interest in abridging the rights of the citizens to achieve a goal. If a compelling interest is found, the government’s infringement must be the least restrictive possible.
My favorite example to illustrate the balancing test is the Amish buggy case in Pennsylvania. The local Amish refused to place the standard orange triangle on the back of their buggies on the highways. Their religious humility forbade flashy colors and even the triangle shape was offensive for religious reasons. The state made a successful case that traffic safety was a compelling reason to force the issue and having dark colored buggies traveling 5 mph on a public highway was unacceptable. The court agreed with the State but ordered a less aggressive alternative. An agreement was reached to hang lanterns on the wagons and use reflective duct tape (not orange) for visibility. Fortunately for the Amish community, Pennsylvania had just passed their RFRA the previous year.
This sounds like a legislative slam dunk. Bipartisan approval in Congress, red and blue state adoption of RFRAs, and a logical explanation in line with our Bill of Rights. But times have changed. The radical left has taken over the Democrat Party of old. Radical sexual and gender groups have gone from a small voice on the left to the most powerful positions in our media, corporations, government, and entertainment. Despite this, those communities have held tightly to the message that they are victims, not cultural victors. And they have an interest in requiring everyone to recognize the new paradigm as an agreed-to conclusion. They have made opposition to RFRA a central point in their messaging. The modern Democrat officeholder won’t touch this issue even if they agree with President Clinton and Congressional Democrats from 1993.
Opponents are sending out mass digital messaging claiming RFRA allows people to choose which law to obey. This is false. The fact that the law was enforced in each case is why the citizen is in court to argue their religious freedom claim. Opponents claim the bill is a “license to discriminate.” This is also false. RFRA doesn’t mention any class or group of citizens. Everyone is treated equally, even if outcomes end up favoring one or the other. The worst accusations occurred in the subcommittee I chaired. It was alleged that husbands would be allowed to beat their wives and men could molest six-year-olds. I assured them that Iowa has a strong, compelling interest in not adopting the Koran due to the proposed RFRA.
Iowa has had to endure years of culture war noise. I’ve seen the pendulum of power swing from one end to the other. If anything, the discussion has only gotten louder. I think having a clear path to tell your story to a judge is the clearest way to balance the interests of those who make laws, enforce them, or live under them. I hope this starts to bring us to a place where we can live our lives as we see fit.