Odgaard v. Iowa (2013-2014)

Betty and Richard Odgaard, owners of the Görtz Haus Gallery, are a small-town Mennonite couple who consider their faith to be a central part of their lives including running their business.

It was their home away from home.

Betty and Richard Odgaard are a small-town Mennonite couple. In 2002, they rescued a near century-old church that was going to be torn down to make room for a gas station, and converted it instead into an art gallery to display Betty’s and other local artist’s work. Inside the Görtz Haus Gallery, the couple also ran a bistro and a small framing, flower, and gift shop. To make ends meet, the Odgaards several times a year personally hosted weddings in the Gallery’s former sanctuary.

For every wedding, Betty would meet with the bride multiple times, plan the celebration, and design the wedding flowers and decorations. Richard would prepare the sanctuary for the ceremony, handle the sound system, and assist the officiant and guests. Each wedding kept them both at the Gallery from morning until night to set up, facilitate, and clean up after the ceremony. Running the Gallery wasn’t just a business, it was the Odgaards’ life’s work.

Betty and Richard’s faith is central to their lives. That’s one reason they kept the church’s religious elements. Latin crosses still adorn the building, both inside and out. Stained glass windows depict Biblical images, and a Bible verse on the wall welcomes all visitors. Many of Betty’s paintings displayed in the Gallery, also express religious themes. Simply stated, the Gallery was an expression of Betty and Richard’s Christian faith.

After over a decade, however, Betty and Richard were forced to shut down the Gallery when the Iowa Civil Rights Commission tried forcing them to personally host a same-sex wedding ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs. The state’s prosecution began after a same-sex couple filed a complaint against the Odgaards for declining to plan and host their marriage ceremony. Through the years, the Odgaards have gladly hired gay employees and served gay customers at the Gallery’s shops and bistro but they cannot personally participate in a wedding ceremony that violates their own religious beliefs.

Although there were numerous nearby venues that actively advertise to host same-sex weddings, when the Odgaards declined to host the wedding, the couple immediately filed a complaint with the State, triggering an intense media campaign against the Odgaards. They were subjected to hate mail, boycotts, personal attacks, and even death threats. Officials in the Civil Rights Commission showed open disdain for the Odgaards’ religious rights, and even denied them access to state court to defend their religious liberty claims. Shockingly, the State refused to dismiss its case against the Odgaards even after the two men—contrary to their prior sworn statements—admitted they had been married months before asking the Odgaards to host their ceremony.

Facing growing pressure from the State and potentially years of legal proceedings, with the risk of being forced to pay the couple’s legal fees, the Odgaards chose to remain true to their faith. They settled the charges brought against them, paying thousands of dollars to the couple, and agreed to stop hosting all weddings. Without this vital income, the Odgaards were forced to close the Gallery.

While heartbroken to see their life’s work end this way, the Odgaards report that their faith is stronger than ever, and they’re certain they did the right thing in staying true to their personal convictions.

Ironically, a local church is considering using the Gallery as a house of worship, which would mean  it would continue to express the Odgaards’ faith—and this time, even the State of Iowa would have to respect it.

The Becket Fund for Religious Libertyrepresented the Odgaards in the lawsuit to defend their freedom to live according to their religious beliefs.  

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