Holt addresses House on religious freedom

ReligionBy Bob Eschliman


A state legislator’s comments on religious freedom sparked an outcry from the other side of the aisle mere minutes after Monday’s Iowa Religious Freedom Day came to an end.

State Rep. Steven Holt (R-Denison) took up the matter of religious freedom during points of personal privilege at the end of the Iowa House of Representative’s work day. The following is his entire speech:


Thank you Mr. Speaker. Ladies & Gentlemen of the House. As we celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson and his influence on the principle of religious liberty within our Bill of Rights, I think it appropriate that we pause for a moment and reflect on the state of religious liberty in America today. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These sacred and profound words have served as a guide in the protection of religious freedom since their adoption. Indeed, our Founders were on the receiving end of religious persecution, which is why the free exercise of religion was so profound an issue for them.

Today in our nation, as we have seen in Indiana and Arkansas, debate rages regarding the free exercise of religion versus the rights and protections of same-sex couples. How do we draw the line of balance? What constitutes discrimination in the context of same-sex marriage ceremonial participation, and how do we balance the free exercise of religion for people of faith with the protection of civil rights for same sex couples?

Today in America, tolerance seems to apply only to those groups that oppose traditional religious values. When approval of same-sex marriage was not widely accepted in our country groups advocating for non-traditional marriage called for tolerance and understanding. Today however, with the media driven cultural shift in popular opinion, the position of groups advocating same-sex marriage is not one of tolerance for those who disagree, but rather one that demands that same-sex marriage be accepted and even participated in, or else. People of faith face attacks, threats, name-calling, intimidation and destruction for even stating their opinion, such as what happened to the owners of Memories Pizza in Indiana in answer to a reporter’s hypothetical question. They faced financial destruction of their business. Destruction of their reputation. Orchestrated attacks on social media. Hate. Even calls to burn down their place of business. All of this because they simply dared to share an opinion related to their free exercise of religion and conviction that they could not cater a same-sex marriage and still hold true to their religious beliefs.

Is there no room for tolerance for those in the Christian community, Muslim community or other faiths to follow their conscience on this issue?

People of faith only ask that they be allowed to exercise what should be their constitutionally protected religious belief as it narrowly pertains to participation in same sex marriage ceremonies, whether that participation is baking a cake, providing flowers or food or performing the ceremony. The faith-based community says please respect our right to disagree, we cannot support and be a part of same sex marriage ceremonies because it clearly violates our religious beliefs. The demand today from those who once called for tolerance is that people of faith who own businesses associated with wedding services must not only accept, they must be forced to actually take part in the same-sex marriage ceremony by supplying goods and services, or face attack and the destruction of their business. Please reflect on this for a moment with me. This demand places people of faith in a position of either violating their religious principles, which in turn violates their 1st Amendment constitutional right to freely exercise their religion, or face destruction of their business. As a Christian and as a U.S. Marine who served for 20 years in the defense of liberty, I absolutely abhor discrimination against anyone, including discrimination against people of faith that forces their participation in something that is absolutely contrary to their most closely held religious beliefs.

Right here in Iowa we already have a case in which people of faith were persecuted for the free exercise of their religion. Betty and Richard Odgaard, a deeply religious Mennonite couple, have had their business and wedding chapel, the Gortz Haus Gallery, placed in peril after they refused to allow a same-sex wedding in their venue. Never mind that they employed gay and lesbian workers. Never mind that they routinely served same sex couples. It was just on this one issue that their deeply held beliefs made it a bridge too far for them, and in following their conscience they refused to allow the ceremony in their chapel. The same sex couple filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and the Odgaards were ordered to pay a fine and acknowledge that they violated civil rights. Now, the same sex couple could have found many other venues for their wedding. Consider in this context, the wise words of Todd Hachmann, in his February 19th letter to the Des Moines Register – “Regarding the injustice that same sex couples have had to endure in being denied the right to use the Gortz Haus for wedding receptions. I, as a pork-eater, can relate. I now demand that a kosher deli provide pork products for me. It doesn’t matter that I can go to a non-kosher deli and get such pork products, I demand that the kosher one provide them for me for the sake of fairness and justice.

I don’t care if the Jews who own the delicatessens have to violate their deeply held religious views because I must have my sense of indignation recognized. It also doesn’t matter if the owners lose a lot of revenue because my need for victimhood supercedes their right to make a living or even not go out of business.

I will have my pound of flesh (or bacon) in this matter.”

So here we are. As a nation we wrote the book on religious tolerance and diversity. To be sure, we have made big mistakes along the way, but we have long been a melting pot where religious diversity is embraced and celebrated. But in 2015, intended or not, the free exercise of religion is under assault in the United States of America in numerous ways. If we cannot find common ground on this issue, we will all lose. It does not matter if you agree or disagree with a Muslim, Christian or Mennonite business owner on this issue. What does matter is how we come together as people of different faiths or even no faith at all, as Democrats and Republicans, and as Americans with an incredible tradition of respecting religious diversity and the free exercise of religion, in balancing the civil rights of same sex couples with the need to protect the 1st Amendment free exercise of religion for people of faith who disagree on religious principle with same-sex marriage. Both of these concerns are profoundly important and both must be protected if we are to remain truly free.

Thank you ladies & gentlemen.

Thank you Mr. Speaker.


The speech drew an angry response from state Reps. Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines) and Deborah Berry (D-Waterloo), who called them insensitive and even un-Christian. Hunter pointed out that Iowa Civil Rights Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and Berry equated the use of religion to turn away business from homosexuals with those who used the Bible to justify the continuation of slavery in the mid-1800s.

That wasn’t the only heated discussion that took place Monday in the House. During morning announcements, House Minority Leader Mark Smith (D-Marshalltown) attacked House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer (R-Clear Lake) over the lack of progress on the state percentage of growth bill in conference committee. The exchange resulted in a rare rebuke from Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha).

Local school districts must adopt their budgets for next school year by Wednesday, but still do not know how much “allowable growth” to include in their budgets. The Republican-controlled House first adopted a 1.25-percent growth bill. The Democrat-controlled Senate followed with its own 4-percent growth bill.

Democrats recently offered a compromise that split the difference between the two funding levels, but Upmeyer indicated Republicans were not likely to budge. Pressed for specifics, she said the 1.25-percent increase was economically feasible and said she expected the conference committee to reconvene later this week.

During points of personal privilege, state Reps. Art Staed (D-Cedar Rapids) and Chris Hall (D-Sioux City) both rose to speak out against the lack of funding for schools.


CLICK HERE to see video from the day’s floor business.