Iowa governor signs Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Gov. Kim Reynolds Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, R-Iowa, speaks at a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at The Grass Wagon on Jan. 13, 2024 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. | Credit: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds this week signed legislation to protect religious freedom in her state, joining the majority of U.S. states that have enacted similar laws in recent years.

Reynolds on her website on Tuesday announced that she had signed the Iowa Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law. The bill passed the state House and Senate in February.

More than half of U.S. states have passed RFRAs since the federal government passed its version of the law in 1993. That law, signed by then-President Bill Clinton, was passed nearly unanimously by Congress in response to the Supreme Court decision Employment Division v. Smith, which held that a state can enact a law that forbids some religious behaviors so long as the measure is a “neutral law of general applicability.”

The federal RFRA stipulates that any law that “substantially” burdens a person’s religious exercise must be both in “furtherance of a compelling government interest” and must be the least-restrictive means of accomplishing it. State-level RFRAs, including Iowa’s recently passed measure, generally institute similar rules. 

The new Iowa law directs that the state “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” unless the measure “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and is “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

“Thirty years ago, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed almost unanimously at the federal level,” Reynolds noted after signing the bill. “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,” she said. 

Greg Chafuen, a lawyer with the legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement that the Iowa law “provides a sensible balancing test for courts to use when reviewing government policies that infringe upon the religious freedom rights of Iowans.”

“The law doesn’t determine who will win every disagreement,” Chaufen said, “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.”

Iowa joins the states of Utah, West Virginia, and Idaho in passing new religious freedom protection laws in 2024.

Pew Research said last month, meanwhile, that its religious restriction and hostilities survey showed that in 2021, government restrictions on religion reached “a new peak globally,” registering “the highest global median score” in the nearly 20 years that it has been analyzing the global data. Restrictions in the United States were listed as “moderate” on the survey.

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