In August, the Gortz Haus Gallery outside Des Moines, Iowa refused to host a wedding for a same-sex couple, with the owners citing their religious beliefs as justification. The couple sued, claiming the business violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA). Now, Betty and Richard Odgaard, the owners of Gortz Haus, have filed their own suit against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) seeking the right to continue discriminating lest their wedding business fold, as well as nominal damages for the harassment they say they’ve experienced since refusing to host the wedding.
According to the Odgaards, who are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious LIberty, their religious beliefs are on the line:
Because the Odgaards believe that marriage ceremonies communicate a powerful social, religious, and legal message, they sincerely believe it would be sinful for them to personally plan, facilitate, or host a wedding ceremony that contradicts their religious beliefs.
Further, publicly associating with a wedding ceremony that violates their beliefs would send a message to others who share their beliefs, including some of their employees, that those beliefs are untrue or unworthy of devotion, and thereby cause those others to sin.
They also claim that they don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation, explaining that they have hired gays and lesbians and provided goods and services to gays and lesbians. Their decision not to host a same-sex wedding, they argue, is “an action taken without regard to the sexual orientation of any potential customers” — it is simply based on a religious conviction. Essentially, they argue that their business is as much a religious institution as an actual church — it is, in fact, house in a refurbished church — and should thus be treated as such under the law.
The Osgaards actually raise an interesting legal question, though not a particularly convincing one. When sexual orientation was added to the ICRA in 2007 (Iowa Code Chapter 216), it contained an exception (216.18), which read, “This chapter shall not be construed to allow marriage between persons of the same sex, in accordance with chapter 595.” Chapter 595 defines Iowa’s marriage law, and it contains no reference to same-sex marriage, but it does stipulate that “Only a marriage between a male and a female is valid.” That statute was, of course, deemed unconstitutional by the Iowa Supreme Court in the case Varnum v. Brien, in which they unanimously ruled that it classifies as discrimination “on the basis of sexual orientation” and must be “stricken from the statute.”
What the Osgaards are arguing is that even though Chapter 595 no longer allows for marriage discrimination against same-sex couples, the exception in Chapter 216 is still valid. Given 216 is based on 595 and 595 has been voided, they do not make a strong case, but it is nevertheless a loose end to be tied up in the law. The Iowa Administrative Code that governs the ICRC notably contains no exceptions for hosting same-sex weddings. If the Court is not willing to grant them an exception from the nondiscrimination protection, they argue it should declare the entire ICRA unconstitutional.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is well known for its many cases filed on behalf of conservative Christians, particularly those seeking to use religion as a justification for discrimination against other groups, including women and the LGBT community. They have filed amicus briefs in cases such as that of Julea Ward, who refused to counsel a gay client while working toward a counseling degree at Eastern Michigan University, as well as Elaine Huguenin, a New Mexico photographer who refused to take pictures for a same-sex commitment ceremony.