Des Moines Register: Iowa gender balance law’s repeal ends unconstitutional discrimination in public service

Iowa State Capitol

Wednesday’s repeal of Iowa’s gender quota laws is a significant win for equality under the law. Since the 1980s, Iowa’s state government has discriminated against both male and female Iowans aspiring to serve on public boards.

State law required that boards, commissions, and councils (even local government) be “balanced” with an equal number of men and women, which means there is a 50/50 gender quota across Iowa government. By signing Senate File 2096 into law, Gov. Kim Reynolds has brought this un-American legacy to an end.

This repeal is long overdue, and harm has been done for decades. Last year, Iowa’s Boards and Commissions Review Committee reported that the gender-balance requirement results in “nearly half of Iowa’s population” being “systematically excluded” from consideration for appointment. The Review Committee also noted that excluding applicants based on their gender “is not based on merit.” That means jurisdictions across the state were forced to choose based on gender, even where someone more qualified for the role was available. And, the laws have made it difficult for governments to fill the seats on commissions and councils.

To make matters worse, gender quotas are blatantly unconstitutional. Just this January, a federal court struck down the Iowa law that required gender balancing on the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission — recognizing that gender quotas and gender balancing violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

Iowans have Charles Hurley to thank for that court victory. Charles is a devoted father and grandfather who spent the past 40 years as an attorney, public representative, and active church member. As a state representative, Charles served on Iowa’s House Judiciary Committee. His experience made him an excellent candidate for the State Judicial Nominating Commission.

Unfortunately for Charles, Iowa law excluded him from appearing on the ballot in his district solely because of his gender. But Charles fought back with the help of our firm, Pacific Legal Foundation.

In its attempt to justify the gender quota, the state argued that it was “appropriately enacted to address the absolute absence of women” on the commission. The court rejected that rationale. It said that the alleged lack of women on the Commission in the 1980s (when the law was first passed) cannot justify discrimination against men and women today.

Thanks to Senate File 2096 sponsor Sen. Jason Schultz, the Iowa Legislature acted promptly to eliminate gender discrimination statewide for those who wish to serve on public boards and commissions.

While Iowa has done the right thing, our work at Pacific Legal Foundation is not done. As our report explains, several other states employ sex-based requirements for service on various public boards and commissions. We won’t stop fighting until all states are discrimination free. Iowa has shown it can be done, and we hope that those states will soon follow Iowa’s leadership in repealing their sex-based requirements for public service.

This op-ed was originally published in The Des Moines Register on April 4, 2024.