Arizona leaders could learn from Iowa's chill

Overzealous response to gay rights seems odd when viewed from cool, calm Iowa

Todd Dorman
Published: February 25 2014 | 5:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:05 am in

A lot of folks from Iowa’s frozen tundra winter in Arizona. Too bad some of them didn’t tell legislators in the Grand Canyon State to chill out.

Arizona lawmakers passed a bill that would, basically, allow business owners to use their personal religious beliefs as a legal justification to discriminate against customers. Gays, lesbians and transgendered folks are the primary targets, of course, although the bill would seem to give businesses a bigoted blank check.

Gov. Jan Brewer is now mulling whether to sign it. She vetoed a similar bill last year.

Brewer should check with some Iowa snowbirds. We’ve barred discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity since July 2007. We’re also nearing the fifth anniversary of legal same-sex marriages. Iowa, too, had politicians who greeted these milestone moments with their hair on fire. But that initial brimstone has been doused by the cool, calm waters of reality.

The Republican-controlled Iowa House didn’t even take a committee vote this year on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. What used to fill the rotunda with protesters and politicians with fear didn’t even survive a funnel deadline.

Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa politico most identified with the fight against gay rights, decided against running for the U.S. Senate. Instead of taking his message to voters, he figured he’d be better off selling it to conservative book-buyers. Although it’s true that the GOP Senate nominee certainly will be against marriage equality, we'll see how much he or she talks about it after the party primary. I'd wager not much.

Iowa’s protections have helped stamp out discrimination, but they’ve hardly led to a wave of complaints.

In the 2013 fiscal year, which ended in June, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission docketed 76 non-housing discrimination cases involving sexual orientation and 49 involving gender identity. Compare that to the 429 cases involving discrimination on the basis of sex, 483 on race and 512 tied to disability. Non-housing cases involve bias tied to employment, public accommodations, credit and education.

There have been disputes involving businesses refusing to provide services to gay couples getting hitched. Those are unfortunate, but Iowa’s law is clear. If you offer a service to the public for a price, you can’t deny that service because someone is gay. Religious institutions are exempted, but businesses are not.

Still, those disputes have been few and far between. Most business owners recognize that times change, and success means embracing and capitalizing. Civil rights victories opened minds and new opportunities, and helped many of us realize that the people fighting for their rights are friends, family, neighbors and customers. Refusing service to those folks now seems just plain wrong, not righteous.

Arizona is getting a lot of attention, but similar bills appear to be going nowhere elsewhere. In 2011, the Iowa House briefly considered the “Religious Conscience Protection Act,” but swiftly tossed it on the scrap heap. The Kansas House recently passed a similar bill, but it died in the GOP Senate. South Dakota’s Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the idea earlier this month. This doesn’t feel like a movement with massive momentum. Seems more like it’s headed for a canyon.


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