Iowa Catholic Conference examines legislation

By Tom Chapman
Iowa Catholic Conference

You may have been hearing some discussion about a “start date” for Iowa’s public and nonpublic schools. Iowa law requires schools to start no earlier than the week that contains the first day of September. However, for many years the state has allowed schools to get a waiver and pick an earlier date to start school.

Following objections from the tourism industry and the Iowa State Fair, the governor has decided not to allow any waivers. This poses a problem for many schools, including Catholic schools, that want to set an earlier date, as has been the common practice for years.

There are two bills moving in the legislature to address the issue. Senate File 227 would allow schools to set a date in accord with the “best educational interests” of the students. House File 13 would create a start date for schools of no earlier than Aug. 23.

Our perspective has been that we support our Catholic schools’ ability to set their own start date according to local community and education needs. But as a practical matter, to fix the current problem, the governor will have to agree to sign a bill, so it is seems unlikely that schools will retain the ability to set their own calendar. Discussions will continue at the statehouse on what the start date might actually be.

The Iowa Supreme Court has set a date of March 11 to hear arguments on a lawsuit against the state Board of Medicine’s rule essentially prohibiting “webcam” abortion. In 2013 the board approved a rule that would require a physician to be physically present when abortion drugs are being provided, rather than pushing a button following a remote video consultation. A district court upheld the rule, but Planned Parenthood has appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

We believe the Board of Medicine has a right to establish a minimum standard of care for such a serious procedure.

We’re pleased to report that two of our legislative priorities moved forward recently.

House Study Bill 138, regulating payday loans, was introduced recently and passed a subcommittee. We support the bill. HSB 138 would help customers avoid the debt cycle by allowing them a 90-day period to pay off the debt without repeat borrowing. Now our job is to convince the House Commerce Committee to move on the bill.

Senate File 269 increases the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75. The bill passed the Senate Labor Committee and will soon be eligible for debate in the Senate. The current minimum wage falls short for its failure to provide sufficient resources for individuals to form and support families. More than 75 percent of Iowa workers that would be directly affected by an increase are age 20 or over.

Another bill we support, Senate File 144, would start a pilot program to train refugees to provide direct assistance to their refugee communities, and fund current English-language instruction programs.

At a subcommittee meeting recently, the ICC expressed its concerns about Senate File 31. The intent of the bill is to outlaw sexual orientation “conversion therapy” for minors. We are concerned that the scope of the bill, as drafted, is so broad it would make counselors reluctant to work with issues of sexuality with young people. We also are concerned it could prohibit speech regarding what the church teaches about human sexuality and counseling young people to refrain from sexual activity.

Senate File 239 has been introduced. The bill would reinstate the death penalty for certain crimes. The ICC opposes the bill, as we believe society can defend itself against unjust aggressors without having to use the death penalty. As the Iowa bishops said in 1998, “We oppose reinstatement of the death penalty to send a message that we can break the cycle of violence, that we need not take life for life.”

The bill is unlikely to advance. If you’re interested in national efforts against the use of the death penalty, go to

Another bill having to do with sentencing policies, Senate Study Bill 1185, was introduced recently. Under current Iowa law, a minor who commits first-degree murder must serve a life sentence without parole. The ICC has opposed this because we believe juveniles should not be treated as if they were equal to adults in their moral and cognitive development. Their culpability may be lessened. In addition, offenders who commit very serious crimes when they are juveniles may gain, with maturity, an understanding of the gravity of their crime and be able to rejoin society under some conditions. SSB 1185, while allowing for a more individualized determination of sentences, would unfortunately still permit a life sentence without parole for juveniles.

                Tom Chapman is executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference in Des Moines.

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