DES MOINES (AP) --- The owners of a private event venue have filed a lawsuit against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, claiming that any attempt by the commission to force the couple behind the business to host a same-sex wedding violates their religious beliefs.
Betty and Richard Odgaard filed the suit Monday in connection with their decision in August to deny a same-sex couple from holding their wedding at the Görtz Haus Gallery in Grimes. The Mennonite owners said the wedding violated their religious beliefs.
The couple said if they're forced to host such events, it would be a violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
There is no specific punitive action in the case, said the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is defending the Odgaards. But the suit said the Odgaards "may be exposed to financial punishment and other forms of official coercion" by the commission.
Lee Stafford and his partner, Jared, filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and claimed the business could not discriminate based on religion because the former church is a public venue. The Görtz Haus serves as a gallery, bistro and private event venue.
Betty Odgaard said her business has suffered from a boycott following the denial, and she and her husband received threatening email messages, Internet postings and phone calls. She said their denial was not discriminatory.
"I have nothing against gays and lesbians. Nothing," she said. "I just personally believe that a marriage is between one man and one woman. I don't condemn or judge anybody else for their beliefs and how they live their life."
Donne Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, a gay and lesbian rights group, said an individual should not be prohibited from basic freedoms because of someone else's religious beliefs.
"One Iowa absolutely respects the faith traditions and the deeply held convictions of Mr. and Mrs. Odgaard," she said in a statement. "However, the Gortz Haus is a public accommodation, not a religious institution. Because the Odgaards offer a service to the public-and that service includes the use of their facilities for civil marriages and receptions _ they cannot and should not deny this service to someone based solely on sexual orientation or gender identity according to the Iowa Civil Rights Act."
By MIKE WISER
DES MOINES | A nationally known religious rights group is suing the Iowa Civil Rights Commission on behalf of a Grimes couple who refused to host a same-sex couple’s wedding.
The 11-count lawsuit by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty was filed late Monday in Polk County Circuit Court and wants the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to rule the refusal of Betty and Richard Odgaard is not a violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Additionally, lawyers for the Odgaards want the commission to declare the couple didn’t engage in discrimination and award them “nominal damages” for the loss of their free speech and free exercise of rights under both the Iowa and U.S. constitutions.
The Odgaards’ own and operate the Gortz Haus Gallery, a 77-year-old church they’ve turned into an art gallery after they purchased it in 2002. The Mennonite couple offers wedding services at the building but refused to host a one for a same-sex couple from Des Moines who tried to rent the building in early August.
The incident made headlines locally and was picked up by national outlets, such as the online news site Huffington Post. Lee Stafford filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission claiming a violation of his and his partner’s rights as a gay couple.
Stafford could not be immediately reached.
Emily Hardman, spokeswoman for the Becket Fund, said the organization doesn’t want to eliminate “sexual orientation” as a protected class in Iowa and said the Odgaards are opposed to hosting the ceremony because of their Mennonite beliefs.
“The Odgaards have long hired and served gays and lesbians, and are happy to serve all persons regardless of their sexual orientation,” Hardman wrote in an email. “The only remedy they are seeking is not to be forced by the government to host a religious ceremony that would violate their own beliefs. The Iowa Civil Rights Act supports this remedy, as it expressly states that the Act is not intended to force individuals to recognize same-sex marriage.”
The Becket Fund is named after Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who was killed in 1170 by supporters of England’s King Henry II over disagreements the two had about the rights of the church and the power of the state.
According to the suit, the Odgaards also have been targeted with “hateful and threatening email messages,” which has chilled their religious speech.
“Just as the Odgaards cannot be forced to display art that violates their religious convictions, they should not be forced to host religious ceremonies that violate their religious convictions,” Hardman wrote. “To our knowledge, no Iowa or Federal court has ever forced anyone to participate in a religious activity against their will. Doing so now would abandon Iowa’s history of being the vanguard of protecting individual freedom, and out of line with state and federal law.”