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Civil rights workers, Democrats worried about bill to limit diversity trainings

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PowerPoint slide from an Iowa City Office of Equity and Human Rights presentation

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL) - A bill is sitting on Governor Kim Reynolds' desk that would ban certain diversity trainings in Iowa. House File 802 would ban mandated trainings that imply the State of Iowa is systemically racist, and those that include so-called "race scapegoating".

The bill passed the house on Thursday along party lines, with Republicans supporting it. The Iowa City Office of Equity and Human Rights says the bill uses language that is too vague and subjective.

"You can't ever predict how someone is going to feel. But our intent is not to make White people feel guilty," Kristin Watson said, human rights investigator for the city.

Watson's office investigates complaints people file against employers or businesses for civil rights violations. Often, the person who brings a complaint will agree to drop the complaint if the offender agrees to do a certain diversity training.

Because of language in the bill, Watson believes they wouldn't be able to do that anymore. The section that makes her say that is one that deals with court-ordered trainings.

"This section shall not be construed to do any of the following:

...

"Prohibit a state or federal court or agency of competent jurisdiction from ordering a training or remedial action containing discussions of specific defined concepts as a remedial action due to a finding of discrimination, including discrimination based on race or sex."

HF 802

Watson is worried because in a mediation between two parties, they often stop before they reach a "finding of discrimination".

"I do not think this bill allows us to order any training, no matter what the subject is," she said.

Representative Steve Holt, R-Denison, introduced this bill and says the equity office is misreading it. Holt says this section is purely designed to state that court-ordered trainings are off-limits.

"If a judge believes that something should be mandated to that individual or a court or something like that, we're not gonna get involved in that," Holt said.

Holt says the overall purpose for the bill is to buck the notion that Iowa and the United States are inherently racist or sexist institutions.

"Saying the United States of America is systemically racist in 2021, I think, is absurd," Holt said.

Democrats who voted against the bill in both houses disagree.

"We need to address racism in our state. And this feels like and looks like an effort to stifle some of that," Rob Hogg said, D-Cedar Rapids.

Hogg believes even if the bill doesn't stop trainings from being implemented, it will cause a world of confusion for school districts and local governments.

"Confusion is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is it actually stops people from doing things to try and address racism," Hogg said.

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Travis Breese

Reporter, Iowa City

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