Critics call it legalized discrimination; supporters say it protects religious associations, schools and charities By Meghan Malloy
An Iowa House subcommittee will consider legislation Wednesday that would allow businesses and organizations to deny services to people whose marriage violates their personal religious beliefs.
The bill, which is aimed squarely at legally married same-sex couples in Iowa, mirrors legislative efforts in other states and has been characterized as “legalized discrimination” by civil rights advocates and legal scholars.
House Study Bill 50, also called the Religious Conscience Protection Act, would give religious institutions, including charities and schools, exemptions from performing, recognizing or providing services to couples in regards to celebrating their marriage, if the couple violates the institution’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The bill would create the same exemptions to small businesses from providing goods and services pertaining to a marriage for the same reason.
The Standing Judiciary Subcommittee will discuss the bill today at 2 p.m. at the Capitol.
Though some congregations perform same-sex marriages in their churches, synagogues or temples, religious institutions in Iowa are not required to perform or recognize such unions by the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 Varnum v. Brien decision that legalized same-sex marriage.
“This bill is meant to cause confusion and worry,” said the Rev. Matt Mardis-LeCroy of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines. “There is nothing in the Varnum decision that ever forced any religious group to marry homosexuals.
”Mardis-LeCroy said he has performed at least a half-dozen same-sex marriages in his United Church of Christ denominational church.
One Iowa, the state’s largest LGBT-rights organization, has come out strongly against the bill, saying it discriminates against gay couples, and if passed, could lead to further discrimination against others.
“This Marriage Discrimination Bill is another shameful and hurtful attack on the institution of marriage by members of the House Judiciary committee,” said Troy Price, political director of One Iowa. “This bill would not just affect LGBT couples, but opens the door to discrimination against interracial and interfaith couples.”
State Rep. Vicki Lensing (D-Iowa City) a member of the Standing Judiciary Committee, said the bill directly violates the Iowa Civil Rights Code, and will also have a damaging effect on heterosexual couples who maybe interfaith or interracial.
“I don’t think state government should tell Iowans whom they can or cannot marry, (and) putting this in code is just as offensive,” Lensing said Tuesday. “I don’t understand why Iowans would think that discrimination against certain groups of people is a fair and just action to take.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, characterized House Study Bill 50 as legalized discrimination.
“Since no church has to perform or recognize same-sex marriage, what this bill in your state does is give religious bigotry a sanction unheard of in this country,” said Lynn, an attorney and ordained minister. And while there have been many cases throughout the United States debating where the line of discrimination and religious rights protection is drawn, “no courts have upheld the principle [Iowa’s] legislation is seeking.”
House Study Bill 50 is similar to other efforts made across the country within the last decade, all modeled under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted in 1993 as a means to prevent violation of one’s right to freely exercise their religion. Lynn cited court cases where, even in light of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, judges ruled one could not use to religious beliefs to prevent renting a building, or deny services, to someone whose lifestyle may violate a religiously-held principle.
Legislation similar to Iowa’s has pushed in Louisiana, North Dakota and Colorado, typically by local affiliates of larger, anti-gay organizations such as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.
Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, said his organization wanted to see a bill in Iowa that was modeled similarly to other Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation.
Chapman said the issue is not so much churches performing or recognizing same-sex marriages as the idea of such recognition applies to religious associations, schools and charities.
“It’s true that the bill does repeat itself concerning churches performing or recognizing same-sex marriage, no question,” he said. “We want to hang on to our religious identity and continue to provide services by doing what we believe our religion calls us to do.”
Chapman added House Study Bill 50 is potentially a way to bridge the gap between two sides of a heated emotional debate over marriage in Iowa.
“I cannot speak for the legislators, but I suspect the sponsors (of the bill) are trying to find middle ground between those who say marriage is nothing but one-man-one-woman, and those who say it isn’t,” Chapman said. “We just want a protected right to live out our teachings.”