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A new, hotly contested bill on “religious freedom” has made it to the floor of the Iowa Senate.

Senate Study Bill 3171 would allow an individual or business the right to “exercise religious beliefs” in opposition to actions or practices perceived as counter to those tenets. For example, a hotel could refuse to rent a room to a same-sex couple based on religious beliefs.

At this time, Time Magazine lists 21 states with so-called religious freedom laws. Over the years, individuals, groups and governmental bodies have invoked or challenged religious freedom over everything from use of illegal drugs in religious rituals to challenging housing laws.

For some, bills like the one being proposed in Iowa give yet another perspective on “religious freedom.” At its basic level, the term implies an individual is free to believe and practice the faith of her or his choosing. Some might tack on a qualifier: as long as it doesn’t harm or impede someone else.

There’s the rub. Legislation like Bill 3171 sheds light on another nuance of “religious freedom.” Some who view the freedom extending to beliefs, speech, assembly and proselytizing charge that such legislation sullies the concept, using it to justify oppression and discrimination.

Religious liberty is often listed among the key foundations of the U.S. Bill of Rights. According to the Bill of Rights Institute, James Madison wrote these 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution after several states voiced concern there must be greater constitutional protection for individual liberties.

The first clause of the First Amendment protects religious liberty: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religious or prohibiting free exercise thereof.”

Today, within the U.S. State Department, the Office of International Religious Freedom is charged with promoting the principle as an objective of foreign policy. To that end, the office monitors religious persecution and discrimination across the globe and promotes religious liberty.

Just as there is nuance in interpretation, views on the subject depend on context.

I have some pity for the Iowa couple that spoke in favor of the bill earlier this week, though I disagree with their beliefs and actions. They described losing their business after refusing to rent their facility to a same-sex couple wedding celebration. However, I find it difficult to sympathize with parents who cite religious beliefs when refusing vaccinations and medical care for children.

Perhaps nuance plays a role in why this Iowa bill is so contentious. Supporters include Concerned Women for America of Iowa, Iowa Catholic Conference and Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Meanwhile, the opposition has united tourism groups, religious organizations and businesses, including the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund, Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Principal Financial Group and Iowa Chamber Alliance. Lobbyists for Facebook,, Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. also have been listed as opponents to the bill.

While State Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, said similar legislation in other states hasn’t had a negative economic impact, others disagree.

Earlier this week, representatives from large employers told legislators the bill may create a perception problem that could harm the state’s overall economy.

According to a Courier story, passage of the legislation could have a “‘chilling effect’ on Iowa companies that conduct international business and recruit skilled workers to Iowa.”

Golden writes The Courier’s weekly faith and values column. Email her at


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