can i discriminate just a little bit, please?

If you want to skip all the details, here’s the meat and potatoes of this post:

Betty Ann Odgaard: “Really, I’m not a bad person — I just want to be able to discriminate against gay folks getting married without getting in trouble or losing any income over it. Don’t make me do it, okay?”

This is how it all started: a gay couple wanted to get married at the Görtz Haus Gallery, which is a popular local marriage venue (it also serves as a rather tony luncheon bistro, has a flower shop and a gift shop, and offers picture framing). The owners of the Görtz Haus, Betty Ann and Richard Odgaard, informed the couple that they don’t allow gay weddings in their facility.

The Odgaards, you see, are Mennonites (well, she’s a Mennonite; he’s just a Lutheran with Mennonite tendencies). The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states marriage can only be between one man and one woman. Therefore it would violate the tenets of the Odgaards’ religion if they allowed a same-sex marriage in the Görtz Haus.

Unfortunately for the Odgaards, same-sex marriage has been legal in Iowa since 2009. The gay couple filed a grievance with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, and the ICRC essentially told the Odgaards they were required to follow the law like everybody else. 

Gortz Haus

Görtz Haus

All pretty straightforward so far, right? The law says the Odgaards can’t “discriminate against any person because of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability.” The Odgaards were discriminating because sexual orientation. The Odgaards were told to stop doing that. And the green grass grows all around, all around. End of story, right?.

Not if you’re Betty Ann and Richard Odgaard. Given the choice between 1) following the law and 2) following the tenets of their faith, the Odgaards chose a third option: they decided to sue the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

Betty and Richard Odgaard

Betty and Richard Odgaard

Lawyers from the Becket Fund for Religious LIberty have offered up a novel legal argument (and by ‘novel’ I mean ‘loopy’). You can read the entire complaint here, but from my reading it seems their argument rests on three points.

Point One — the Odgaards aren’t homophobes. They hire gay folks to do stuff for weddings, they serve lunch to gay folks in the bistro, and they let gay folks buy stuff in the various Görtz Haus shops.

[T]he Odgaards have willingly hired and served gays and lesbians throughout the Gallery’s history

Point Two — it’s not the Odgaards who want to deny same-sex couples the use of the Görtz Haus for their weddings, it’s their religion.

The Odgaards’ decision not to plan, facilitate, or host wedding ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs is an action taken without regard to the sexual orientation of any potential customers. Their decision is instead based on a religious conviction against personally and publicly promoting activities that violate their religious beliefs.

Point Three — if they’re required to choose between following the law like everybody else or following their religion, then they’d have to stop allowing anybody from getting married in the Görtz Haus, and that would reduce their income.

Despite the devastating impact it would have on their business, the Odgaards’ religious convictions would require them to stop hosting any wedding ceremonies rather than knowingly host wedding ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs.

In other words, the Odgaards are simple gay-friendly folks whose religion prohibits them from letting same-sex couples get married in their facility, so they’d very much like the court to let them get by with just this teensy-weensy bit of discrimination so their church will be happy and they won’t lose any income. Is that so unreasonable?

Oh, and if the court won’t allow them a little leeway in discrimination, then the Odgaards would like the court to “declare that the Iowa Civil Rights Act violates the Iowa and United States Constitutions.” They’ve also asked that the ICRC to pay them “nominal damages” for their unfair treatment. Also attorney fees. 

gay wedding cake

I suspect Betty Ann and Richard Odgaard are fundamentally decent people. I believe they truly enjoy putting on weddings at Görtz Haus. And I’m sure they appreciate the income brought by those weddings. I’m confident that what they really want is for everything to go back to the way it was before that same-sex couple complicated their lives by asking to get married in their facility.

That’s how privileged people always feel. They always want the world to return to a simpler and more comfortable time when they didn’t have to consider the feelings or wants or needs of other folks.

There’s a lot of real religious repression taking place in the world. There are places where practicing religion is actually dangerous. But Iowa isn’t one of them. Nobody is preventing the Odgaards from practicing their religion. Nobody is denying them the right to express their religious beliefs. If there’s a conflict between their religion and the law, they have a clear choice: follow their religious beliefs and accept the loss of income from weddings, or follow the law and continue to live comfortably.

The choice may be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be difficult.

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