This session we fought a number of harmful bills in the statehouse. One-party control of the Iowa Legislature created serious challenges—especially in terms of reproductive and voting rights. But there were  significant wins in areas such as privacy, surveillance, and due process. 

After the election last November, it was crystal clear that this was going to be a session in which we would be trying to minimize damage to a number of fundamental rights. And that was indeed the case. 

Notable bills that passed and pose a severe threat to fundamental civil liberties are the new Iowa abortion law—one of the harshest in the nation, the defunding of Planned Parenthood in Iowa, and the passage of voter ID. Here are some other important wins, losses, and partial wins. 

Voter ID

Critical loss. What does it say about a bill when the only organization supporting it is the Iowa Minutemen? HF 516 was signed into law despite clear evidence that it will make voting more difficult and complicated—not to mention, expensive. Problem provisions of the new law include:

  •      Requiring many voters to show government-issued identification at the polls.
  •      Reducing the time period for casting absentee ballots and voting early at satellite polling places from 40 to 29 days
  •      Requiring all election-day registrants to be subject to a deeply flawed background check process through the state’s unreliable and inaccurate database of disenfranchised felons before they can cast regular, non-provisional ballots 

Make no mistake: This is the latest in a broad strategy to make it harder for eligible voters to vote. It rolls back decades of progress to expand voter participation—especially for low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and senior citizens. 

The ACLU of Iowa is now reviewing legal options to fight this blatant voter suppression law.

Reforms to Civil Asset Forfeiture 

Important partial win. This law, SF 446, is a step in the right direction. Law enforcement has been seizing cash and assets from motorists and individuals—in many cases, without a conviction and in some cases, without even an arrest. 

The law has been changed so that law enforcement agencies now must keep records of the assets they’ve seized—key for transparent government and identifying repeat abuses. Additionally, the law now raises the standard of proof in forfeiture actions closer to that of what is required in a criminal conviction.

It’s also a step forward that a criminal conviction is required before law enforcement may seize amounts of $5,000 or less. However, that needs to be changed to require  a conviction when seizing any amount. 

Nor does the new law remove the profit incentive to seize property. Right now, the sheriff’s office directly seizing cash can keep it. We’ll work next session to get that and other elements of the law changed.     

Blocking the Use of Religion to Discriminate Against Others 

Important win. By working strategically and successfully with business groups and partner organizations, we were able to prevent the introduction of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bill, despite repeated attempts. 

RFRAs are the discriminatory bills that other states like Indiana and South Carolina have contended with. They legalize discrimination on the basis of an asserted religious belief, allowing the denial of service, housing, and even bathrooms to LGBT people, women, and religious minorities. They even allow exception to criminal laws, like those against domestic abuse. 

Cities Banned from Discriminating Against Non-Relatives in Rentals 

Win. The government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding who makes up a family. The ACLU was successful in advocating for HF 134, now a law preventing Iowa cities from implementing discriminatory housing ordinances that dictate how many non-related people can live in a rental unit. The cities were narrowly defining “family” for residents rather than allowing them to define it themselves.

 There is no civil liberties problem with other ordinances that aim to protect neighborhoods, such as limiting occupancy in general or restricting noise or parking. But cities must not impose a 1950s nostalgic worldview on residents about which people may or may not live together.

Death Penalty 

Win. It was horrifying to see some legislators trying to drag justice back nearly a half century, to 1965, when the death penalty was abolished in Iowa. However, alongside our allies, we were successful for now in convincing lawmakers that Iowans had no taste for government-sponsored executions. This bill died in subcommittee.

Moving Forward with Medical Cannabis

Partial win. More people in Iowa are more likely to get much-needed relief from medical cannabis with a wider-ranging law that expands the list of diseases for which cannabis oil can be used (with a doctor’s recommendation). Smoking of the drug is prohibited. 

But there is more work to be done—including ultimately decriminalizing personal marijuana use altogether. We’ll continue to lobby for improved marijuana laws in upcoming sessions. 

Pregnant Workers Rights Act 

Progress made. The ACLU has been working for passage of a bill that would assure “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers. Those include allowing pregnant workers to carry a water bottle, providing a  stool to workers who must stand for extended periods of time, or temporary reassignment of duties if a doctor recommends physical limits during pregnancy. The bill recognizes that  what is reasonable for one size of employer will be different for another.

Our bill was introduced with wide, bipartisan support and passed through a House subcommittee unanimously. But it didn’t progress further. We’ll pick up the bill next session to get it passed.

A Halt on “Sanctuary Cities” Legislation

Win. This anti-immigrant bill, SF 481, would have penalized those county jails that, rightly, do not keep people in custody longer than authorized by a judge (see box below). It did not become law. 

Merely because they abide by the Fourth Amendment, those jails have been threatened with the loss of funding for being so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions.”

The bill was proposed because some legislators and Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would like Iowa county jails to hold an individual for days longer than authorized, simply because ICE requested it, with no authorization from a judge. 

At a national level, similarly, President Trump in April signed a federal anti-sanctuary executive order. As of publication time, a federal judge had blocked that order, determining that it was unconstitutional. 

SF 481 passed the Iowa Senate but not the House. If it is taken up again next session, we will work to make sure the bill does not pass the House.

Racial Profiling Legislation 

No advancement. Racial profiling by Iowa law enforcement continues to drive our state’s terrible problem of racial disparities in our county jails and prisons. A bill addressing racial profiling was introduced but failed to advance.

We will continue to work with partner organizations next session to craft and advance legislation that would minimize racial profiling. 

Photo by Peter Levitt