You are here

Iowa Law Professor honored for role in drafting Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965 on 50th Anniversary

Arthur E. Bonfield

When Iowa law Professor Arthur Bonfield sat down to draft the state’s first comprehensive civil rights legislation 50 years ago, the thought the community should use its legal system to prevent broad discrimination against minority groups was not obvious to the general public or legislators.

Though enactment by Congress of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 had helped to prepare Iowa for such state legislation because some of the national consensus supporting the Federal Act had spilled over into Iowa, the provisions of the Federal Act were not applicable to most Iowa employers and Iowa establishments serving the public and existing state legislation on the subject of civil rights was wholly inadequate and practically unenforceable.

In 1964 Bonfield began his work to convince relevant Iowa decision makers that an Iowa Civil Rights Act was necessary by publishing an article in the Iowa Law Review which contained both substantive provisions for such an Iowa statute and an effective and comprehensive enforcement mechanism. At the time, that Article was distributed to all members of the Iowa General Assembly. He then drafted a bill for introduction into the Iowa General assembly based on his Iowa Law Review article which broadly prohibited discrimination in employment and public accommodations on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, and that was effectively enforceable by an Iowa Civil Rights Commission also created by the bill.

Because state legislators told him that politics would not permit it, Bonfield was forced to omit from the bill he drafted at that time prohibitions on such discrimination in housing and on the basis of sex. When the bill he drafted was considered by the General Assembly it passed both houses unanimously and was signed by  then-Governor Harold Hughes in April 1965.

In 1967 Bonfield drafted a bill to amend the 1965 Iowa Civil Rights Act by adding prohibitions on discrimination in housing.  That amendment was successfully added in April of that year. In the following three years he repeatedly made submissions to the legislature for an amendment to the Act that would prohibit sex discrimination, but it took until 1970 for the General Assembly to accept that prohibitions on gender discrimination should be added to the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The bill has also since been amended to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of age, disability,  sexual orientation and gender identity. Bonfield also drafted a comprehensive amendment to the Act that enhanced the effectiveness of the enforcement mechanisms used by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. The General Assembly enacted it in 1978.

This year, on the Act’s 50th anniversary, the Iowa legislature honored Bonfield for his work as principal draftsman by passing a House Resolution, which recognizes him for his role in persuading Iowa lawmakers that new, comprehensive civil rights legislation was necessary and for his drafting of the 1965 and 1967 Iowa Civil Rights Acts. He was also invited to be the keynote speaker at a program commemorating the Act’s anniversary, where he reflected on the historical importance of the Act.

“The enactment of the Iowa Civil Rights Act 50 years ago was an important landmark in the struggle for human rights in this state. On a practical level, it helped to reduce the deleterious discrimination in this state against individual on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity,” Bonfield said in a recent speech commemorating the Act.

“It also formally committed us as a community to the protection of individual human dignity by firmly embedding in our law the principle that each person should be treated on the basis of his or her own particular merits, capacities, and accomplishments, and not on the basis of overbroad, unjust, and harmful stereotypes or prejudicial judgments.”

PDF iconFollow this link to read Professor Bonfield’s remarks on the Origin and Rationale of the Iowa Civil Rights Act at 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Act on May 20, 2015.

Abbreviated Timeline: History of The Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965

  • 1964: Arthur Bonfield proposes a state civil rights statute through an article,  “State Civil Rights Acts: Some Proposals”, 49 Iowa Law Review 1067 (1964), which was distributed to every member of the Iowa General Assembly.
  • December, 1964: Bonfield drafts a civil rights bill for introduction into the Iowa General Assembly based on proposals from his Iowa Law Review article.
  • 1965: Vote on final passage of the bill was unanimous in both the House and the Senate and is signed by Governor Hughes on April 29, 1965.
  • Early 1967: Bonfield drafts a fair housing amendment to the newly enacted Iowa Civil Rights Act and sends it to Senator Ely, who agrees to move forward with it during that year’s legislative session. General Assembly enacts amendment.
  • 1970: General Assembly finally agrees to amend the Iowa Civil Rights Act by adding prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex.
  • 1972: Iowa Civil Rights Act amended to add provisions prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of age and disability.
  • 1974: Iowa Civil Rights Act amended to add provisions barring defined unfair credit practices.
  • 1978: The Iowa General Assembly enacts an amendment written by Bonfield to enhance enforcement mechanisms used by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to enforce the Act.
  • 2007: Iowa Civil Rights Act amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
News Section: 
Featured