A so-called religious freedom bill advanced in the Republican-controlled Iowa Senate Monday, in spite of vigorous objections from major business groups.
The bill would give Iowans more legal protection if they deny services to gay and lesbian people for religious reasons.
A Grimes couple who lost a civil rights complaint after denying the use of their venue for a same-sex wedding urged lawmakers to pass the bill. It would require courts to use a more stringent standard when reviewing any Iowa law that may conflict with someone’s religious beliefs.
Betty and Dick Odgaard said the law would have worked in their favor. They lost a civil rights complaint, paid a fine, and then closed down their venue business rather than serve same-sex couples.
“If this law would have been in place, we would have had our day to argue in court,” said Betty Odgaard, choking back tears. “It wouldn't have been the final answer. It doesn't mean we would have had our way, but we would have at least had a chance, and we did not have a chance to argue our case."
But representatives of major Iowa employers said the bill will paint Iowa in a negative light.
“Legislation like this, even discussion of legislation like this, has a clear chilling effect on our ability to recruit from around the country and around the world,” said Tim Coonan, representing the Principal Financial Group. “It is clearly a weakening of the existing Civil Rights Act.”
Industry leaders said the bill could result in discrimination against people based not just on their sexual orientation, but on disabilities, race, and ethnicity. They said the legislation would open up Iowa businesses to liability and litigation and could prompt the NCAA to avoid Des Moines as a venue for tournaments.
"As we've seen in a number of other states, legislation such as this has a great negative impact for companies and organizations to recruit highly skilled workers and all workers of all skills into critical jobs,” added Joe Murphy with the Greater Des Moines Partnership.
Evangelical Christians and Catholics argued for the bill.
“We all have differing ideologies and we live in a world where we have those differing ideologies, but we don't have to worry about the government coming and forcing us to break our deeply held convictions,” said pastor Mike Demastus of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ. “That's the world I want to live in.”
Twenty-one other states have similar statutes.
A three-member Senate panel advanced the bill, which is now available for debate in the full Senate Local Government Committee.
“This is an argument worth having if we are going to preserve our way of life in this country," said Sen. Dennis Guth (R-Klemme).