Iowa Passes Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Iowa’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act bolsters free exercise protections for individuals, churches and religious institutions.

Iowa’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” makes it the 27th state to enact such a law—and the fifth since 2021. 

Iowa’s statute is intended “(t)o restore the compelling governmental interest test and to guarantee its application in all cases where the free exercise of religion is substantially burdened by state action.”

Individuals, churches, and religious institutions can seek the law’s protections when they believe their free exercise rights under the US Constitution have been “substantially burdened by state action.” 

Iowa’s law resembles federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The wording echoes language used in the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The federal act came in response to a controversial US Supreme Court decision.

The Court’s 1990 ruling in Employment Division v. Smith established a lower judicial standard for reviewing neutral, generally applicable laws, even when those laws substantially burden religious exercise. The resulting effect was a harder legal path for religious parties to defend their free exercise rights, prompting Congress to respond.

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Another Supreme Court decision in 1997 determined that RFRA could only apply to federal government agencies and actors. In response, states began adopting their own versions to address local- and state-level situations. 

Several RFRAs since 2020

In 2021, South Dakota and Montana passed RFRAs, while in 2023, North Dakota and West Virginia did the same. 

South Dakota, North Dakota, and West Virginia’s RFRAs also added language prohibiting state and local governments from restricting religious activities more than secular parties—an issue triggered by restrictions and executive orders during the COVID-19 pandemic that in some instances appeared to unfairly treat churches and ministries.

In response, the Supreme Court ruled restrictions imposed on churches violate the First Amendment unless they are uniformly applied to businesses and secular organizations. 

Iowa’s law did not include language similar to South Dakota, North Dakota, and West Virginia.

Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s governor, said the law is necessary.

“Thirty years ago, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed almost unanimously at the federal level,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Since then, religious rights have increasingly come under attack. Today, Iowa enacts a law to protect these unalienable rights—just as twenty-six other states have done—upholding the ideals that are the very foundation of our country.” 

Matthew Branaugh is an attorney, and the content editor for Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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