Monday, October 14, 2013

Same-Sex Marriage Discrimination Case: Iowa Addition

Gortz Haus Gallery is an art gallery owned by a Mennonite couple in Iowa. Just a week ago from today, the couple sued the Iowa Civil Rights Commission because they faced penalty for refusing to host same-sex weddings in the church building that is a part of their facilities. The couple, Betty and Richard Odgaard, claim that same-sex marriage is fundamentally against their religious beliefs as Mennonites and that by complying with the law they are in public violation of those beliefs. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission dictates that "any...proprietor... of any public accommodation or any agent or employee thereof: (a) [t]o refuse or deny to any person because of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity" etc. As far as the state legislature is concerned, the Odgaards are in violation of discrimination. Additionally, it is important to note that the State of Iowa does legally recognize same-sex marriage. The couple was sued prior to their complaint with the ICRC based on a discrimination case after they refused to host a same-sex wedding ceremony. With the suit, the couple has received countless pieces of hate-mail and threats (included as evidence in the complaint, if interested). Ultimately the Odgaards wish to be exempt from the legislation and for an injunction to be placed on the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

The plaintiffs attempt to establish in their complaint that they have not and do not discriminate in regards to sexual orientation, stating that they have hired and served gays and lesbians in the past. Furthermore they consistently maintain that they do not wish to violate their beliefs and that the space used for the wedding ceremonies is explicitly a church. Thus the couple would feel their beliefs further violated by hosting same-sex ceremonies in such a space. Other employees of the art gallery share in the Mennonite beliefs, and the Odgaards do not want to subject them to violating their own religious beliefs as well.

Some would argue that the Odgaards have clearly discriminated against same-sex couples by refusing to accommodate them. In regards to how the law is stated, they have. We've seen that in past cases, the courts often side in that direction. For example, there was the New Mexico photography company that was found guilty after refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding just this past August. The question becomes then, is there anything different about this specific case?

I do think that the location of these potential services plays a factor in deciding a case like this. If the couple was refusing to host same-sex marriages solely based on their religious beliefs, precedent would show that they would be found guilty. Yet, if they feel as though preforming such a service would desecrate what they consider a place of worship, a sanctuary, are they more validated? Their written complaint does not play this angle as much as I feel it should. Established churches can refuse to preform same-sex marriages, so I feel as though the couple's concerns about the sanctity of the space are honest. Yet at the same time, the opposition could argue that the church is no longer serving its function as a place a worship and exists currently as a business and should be run as one. This is compounded by the fact that Iowa recognizes same-sex marriages. If such a marriage is protected, the argument for a secular business refusing services to a same-sex couple is substantially weakened in that it is almost compulsory that they are recognized as legitimate by the citizens of Iowa.

The complaint further claims that practitioners of the Mennonite faith have historically been persecuted and subsequently protected by the government. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, although dealing with the stricter Amish, the Courts appears to abide by this statement. However, I disagree with this angle. The sect that the couple belongs to has long divulged from its Old Mennonite Roots.To group them in with those persecuted is a small stretch of the truth and to me personally, an invalid argument. Yet, who am I to be that judge?

In the past, I would have quickly sided against the couple. However, I feel slightly different in this case and I am beginning to be a bit more sympathetic to the other side of the argument. This is especially in regards to the hate-mail, which I believe is wildly inappropriate at anytime or from anyone, including the LGBT community. Nonetheless, I find discrimination based on sexual preference to be wrong and prosecutable under the law. Moreover, the current operation of the building is as a business, which in the past I argued must operate secularly, even if religiously themed. Being a former church, this case stretches my willingness to defend that statement steadfast in all situations. However, based on recent precedent, I ultimately believe the court will decide against the couple and uphold the charges against them. 

Here is the full complaint.


Liz L. said...

It is immaterial that Iowa recognizes same-sex marriage. The church is not a public institution and is protected to practice its religion. If the Mennonite facility is recognized as a legal religious institution, then they are not obligated to perform any religious ceremonies that do not conform with their core beliefs and the government does not have the right to interfere. Similarly, non-Catholics have no right to compel a Roman Catholic priest to marry them. However, if this specific facility is not legally recognized as a religious institution, then the First Amendment protections will not apply.

Gabby D. said...

Since this church is not officially a religious institution, I believe this couple is not protected under the free-exercise clause. This case is similar to Bob Jones University v. US in the same way that it deals with a Christian religion discriminating against people. I recognize that the other case dealt with education, but I believe the principles are similar. In that past case, the court ruled that the private institution could not discriminate and therefore I believe the same precedent should stand for this case.

I do understand how it may be unfair to the couple and the Catholic faith, but the free exercise clause is not 100% guaranteed. In this case especially, there seems to be an overriding compelling state interest to protect the same-sex couples from trying to get married in this building.

Yessica M said...

I find myself very conflicted with this case. Similar to Benjamin, I would have immediately been against the couple because they are discriminating against same-sex marriage. However, I have changed my thought process and I strongly believe that the couple should be exempt. If the couple were completely against same-sex marriages/relationships they would not serve their services of their gallery to anyone from the LGBT community. Based on this fact, I believe that they are following the Iowa legislation accordingly. But because the space that is being requested for a wedding used to be a church, it holds value and sentiment and that should be respected and therefore the couple should be exempt from the legislation. Regardless if it is not considered a religious institution anymore, the couple would see it as disrespect to allow a wedding/celebration that is against their religious beliefs.

Dylan Smith said...

It seems to be the case, that the church is no longer recognized as a religious institution. According to the description in the case, the church is now simple a piece of the Art Gallery and the same sex couple only wants to rent the space for their ceremony. It doesn't not appear that they are asking anyone who owns the church to attend or to marry them. On the basis of what I have said, the same sex couple is covered under the Civil Rights Commission to rent out this space as a public accommodation. I think this is an act of discrimination and as thus, should not be protected.