DES MOINES — Iowans would be granted broader legal protection to take actions guided by their religious beliefs under a proposal advanced Tuesday by Republican lawmakers.

The “religious freedom” bill would require courts to give heightened scrutiny to any legal claim brought against an individual who claims their actions were guided by their religion.

A 45-minute hearing on the proposal Tuesday at the Capitol featured dozens of supporters — largely from faith-based organizations — and opponents, including business and civil rights groups.

Supporters said the legislation is needed to protect individuals’ right to freely practice their religion and guard against government intrusion.

“There has been a methodical and deliberate attack on religious liberty,” Jeff Ferguson, pastor at Glory Baptist Church in Carlisle, testified to legislators. “All we’re asking for is a chance to stand unhindered in court.”

Critics said the proposal would give businesses and individuals license to discriminate against others while using religion as a legal shield. Opponents say current law already provides sufficient protections against religious discrimination.

“We strongly support religious freedom, but we also stand for the American values of equality, fair treatment and freedom,” said Daniel Zeno, policy director for the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Religion has been used to excluded classes of people. ... We shouldn’t turn back the clock in Iowa.”

Twenty-one states — mostly in the south — have enacted so-called religious freedom laws, although the language varies from state to state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among Iowa’s neighbors, Illinois and Missouri have religious freedom laws.

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States that have enacted similar laws in recent years have faced significant backlash from business and athletic organizations. The NCAA has threatened to withhold postseason tournament events — like the NCAA basketball tournament, which this year has games scheduled in DesMoines — in states with religious freedom laws. Business groups say the laws make it harder to recruit workers because they create a perception those states are not inclusive or welcoming.

Gary Scholten, executive vice president and chief information officer for Principal Financial Group, said the company holds diversity and inclusion at the same level of legislative importance as taxation and regulation.

“We believe (the proposal) would enable discrimination by empowering business owners to deny services based on (religious beliefs),” Scholten said. “This sends the wrong message about Iowa.”

Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, who conducted Tuesday’s hearing, said the proposal is needed because “average citizens” in church clubs, schools and businesses “are all on edge because of the power of this pressure to conform.” He cited, without naming, a college professor who decided to present as the opposite gender and a request at a youth camp for a boy who presented as a girl and requested to be placed in a cabin with other girls.

“This sort of thing is not what Iowa should be about,” Guth said. “Thought control is wrong.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, told reporters she thinks an individual’s right to freely practice his or her religious beliefs and an individual’s right to not be discriminated against should be able to coexist.

Asked if those things can coexist under current laws, or if legislation like Guth’s religious freedom bill is needed, a spokesman for the governor said she is “exploring the issue.”

A similar legislative proposal was introduced last year, but did not advance out of the Iowa Senate.

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State house reporter for The Courier/Lee Enterprises.

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