Iowa's latest hypocrisy in the name of religion

Governor Kim Reynolds signs Senate File 2095 at a FAMiLY Leader event on April 2. Photo posted on her political Facebook page and X/Twitter feed.

Henry Jay Karp is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa, which he served from 1985 to 2017. He is the co-founder and co-convener of One Human Family QCA, a social justice organization.

Welcome back, Iowa, to the Middle Ages, when the rule of the church was as absolute as the rule of the king! The so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which Governor Kim Reynolds signed on April 2 at a Christian organization’s private dinner, is a prime example of Iowa’s legislative hypocrisy, enacted in the name of religion.

Advocates portrayed Senate File 2095 as a defense of “religious freedom”—a freedom that already was guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as Article I, Section 3 of Iowa’s constitution. In reality, the legislation defends the freedom to discriminate and persecute in the name of religion.

As a member of a minority faith in the U.S., especially in Iowa, I can wholeheartedly tell you that up until now, the First Amendment has done a great job in protecting my religious freedom and the freedom of my fellow Jews in an overwhelmingly Christian environment. It states very clearly: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The First Amendment forbids our government from declaring any one religion as our national religion, contrary to the religious wet dreams of the Christian Nationalists, even as it protects all the faith groups that make up the wondrous religious diversity of America to freely practice the tenets of their religion of choice, including the freedom to choose not to practice or adhere to the tenets of any religion.

We can pray as we like, in whatever language we choose.

We can observe unencumbered our own religious holy days.

We can build our own houses of worship.

We can espouse the ethical teaching of our faith in public.

We can do all this unrestricted by our government—federal, state, or local.

What we cannot do is enlist the government to impose our religious beliefs or practices upon others.

We call this “religious pluralism.” It is one of the blessings of America.

Over the past few years, we have experienced an evolving attack on religious pluralism, and American pluralism in general, aided by some devastating U.S. Supreme Court rulings along with anti-pluralism legislation coming out of conservative state legislatures and signed into law by Republican governors. Iowa is one of the states leading the pack.

This newly enacted “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” is a case in point. While parading as a protection of “religious freedom,” it grants license to those who wish to impose their religious views upon those who do not share those views, doing so in the name of religious beliefs. Indeed, under Iowa’s new law, “religious freedom” becomes a tool with which these folks can circumvent all the anti-discrimination laws that have been, up until now, one of the greatest legacies of the civil rights movement.

There is little question that the primary target of this legislation is the LGBTQIA community. Already, Iowa’s GOP trifecta has enacted several laws discriminating against that community, especially transgender people. Such laws further an agenda aimed at purging our state of the very existence of LGBTQIA people, step-by-step denying them their right to live openly and freely in Iowa. And they do so in the name of one religion in particular: fundamentalist Christianity.

If left unchecked by a public that embraces diversity, they will eventually succeed, sooner rather than later. We must take very seriously the claim by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that the Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade opens the door to a overturning the Obergefell decision (which protects marriage equality) in the future.

Second on their list of targets are the rights of women to control their own bodies, specifically their reproductive rights.

This struggle has been going on for decades, all in the name of religion: or more precisely, Christianity. Old farts like myself remember the days when abortion was outlawed throughout the land. Like its predecessor, Prohibition, such laws failed to put an end to abortions. They only restricted legal abortions. Just as Prohibition gave rise to bootlegging, an industry built around the illegal production and distribution of alcohol, so the banning of abortion created an illegal industry of backstreet abortions, unsafe, unsanitary, and all too often lethal to the women who had them. All in the name of “religious freedom.”

But not all religions embrace the idea that life begins at conception. For example, Judaism teaches that until the birth of the head, the fetus is considered a part of the body of the woman. It says so in the Torah (the five books of Moses, part of the Hebrew Scriptures).

In fact, the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic writings interpreting Jewish laws) requires an abortion in the case where the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman. Abortion bans, as they are being enacted in many states, violate the First Amendment religious freedom rights of Jewish women, imposing upon them the Christian beliefs on when life begins over and against their Jewish beliefs. Nor are Jews alone in this.

We should not forget that prior to the Civil War, Southerners who supported slavery used their religion to justify that inhuman institution. Segregationists used religion to justify Jim Crow laws as well. To this day, some hate groups known as Christian Identity Groups justify their racist ideology by the perverse way they interpret the teachings of Christianity.

So much for “freedom of religion.” So much for respecting the diversity of the American people and the values of American pluralism, religious and otherwise.

Welcome to Iowa, where a narrow-minded theocracy is incrementally replacing democracy.

About the Author(s)

Henry Jay Karp

  • Well Reasoned.

    Thanks for the excellent commentary Rabbi.

  • Thank you Rabbi Karp

    This bill defines exercise of religion as action “substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”

    Welcome to Iowa, where a narrow-minded theocracy is incrementally replacing democracy.

    Now I can sue. We fellow progressives can sue. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    We’ve been “substantially burdened” ever since Branstad/Reynolds cancelled Chapter 20 in 2017. In every session since Reynolds was elected, she has progressively (not in a good way) eroded public education, an institution in which I’ve had faith to prepare the next generation (my grandchildren and my neighbor’s children) to extend and protect our pluralistic democracy, ie, “whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.” In America, a threat to democracy is a threat to any person’s “exercise of religion,” as he/she may sincerely hold.

    My belief and conviction in this premise is as great as Governor Reynolds’ belief that public schools are indoctrinating children in the nefarious, counter-religious woke lessons of history, the rights and privileges of the LBGTQ community, or the professional authority of a licensed educator.

    This should unite every parent, student, teacher, grandparent, et al, and etc. whose local education program has been eroded by the elimination of authentic history and the marginalization of school curriculum in favor of religious conservatives whose faith and practices I detest. If left unchecked by a public that embraces diversity (as the Rabbi Emeritus says), “they will eventually succeed, sooner rather than later.” We are well down that slippery slope.

    And now, 78 years after Harriette Curley (the first African American teacher in DMPS) joined Perkins’ staff in 1946 and made history, the true story of her journey might not even be able to be taught in Iowa’s institutions. “Divisive concepts” are forbidden by HF 802, and while HF 2558 failed to obtain a Senate subcommittee meeting this session, it is probably not the last attack on diversity, equity and inclusion that we will see in Iowa.