Iowa GOP Senate hopefuls split on religious conscience law

Candidates disagreed on whether small business owners need an Arizona-like conscience law to protect their religious liberties

James Q. Lynch
Published: March 19 2014 | 7:18 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:50 am in

Candidates for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate found little to disagree on when talking about what’s bad for small business: Obamacare, the EPA, big bank bailouts and overreaching Washington politicians and bureaucrats.

However, there was disagreement on whether small business owners need an Arizona-like conscience law to protect their religious liberties.

Four Republicans hoping to succeed Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin spent most of a forum in front of the National Federation of Independent Business Tuesday night singing from the same hymnal. However, there was some dissonance when the quartet was asked about their support for the Arizona religious freedom law that would have made it easier for business owners to refuse service to gay people on religious grounds.

College professor Sam Clovis called Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto a mistake because religious freedom is a First Amendment right that means “our religious faith, our religious doctrine should be protected and there are no exceptions."

State Sen. Joni Ernst called it a “very, very difficult issue.” As conservatives, she said, the GOP was based on the premise that all people are created equal “do not want to discriminate anybody regardless of whatever their sexual preference might be.”

“However, I do not believe that we should be forcing people who have a religious objection to providing services that deal with their religious liberties,” she said.

She wouldn’t support discriminating against a gay couple who went to a restaurant for a meal, Ernst said, adding “it’s a very complicated issue.”

Matt Whitaker said he hadn’t been following the Arizona situation, but he does care about religious liberty and cases of religious organizations being forced to do things that violate their beliefs.

“As a Christian, I practice my Christian religion and I don’t want to get in the way of others, whether you are Muslim or Jewish or some other denomination, from you practicing your religion,” he said.

Mark Jacobs shares his competitors’ concern with the federal government’s encroachment on religious liberty and promised to “fight very vigorously” to defend religious liberty.

“In the instances of religious organizations, I absolutely, 100 percent support the idea that we can have no religious encroachment,” Jacobs said. “But when people choose to enter the field of commerce, I think we have to make sure that we have an environment that those businesses are open to law-abiding citizens. I’m very concerned about the discriminatory nature that could creep into that if we open that door.”

Speaking to members of the NFIB, which has nearly 11,000 members in Iowa – 92 percent of whom work for businesses with 20 or fewer employees -- the candidates generally agreed the current $7.25-an-hour minimum wage is appropriate and there is no role for the federal government in raising it. Three of the four candidates said they had worked for the minimum wage at one time.

They also generally agreed the common core education standard should be scrapped, but called for higher education standards set by states and local school boards. They’d also like to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and get rid of the Department of Education and the Dodd-Frank act.

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